To set the stage for the amazing month ahead, I’ll be starting with Claudine Matthews who has worn many hats throughout her career! She is a registered dietitian, associate lecturer, motivational speaker and an advocate for improving nutritional therapy in sickle cell treatment. When I read Claudine’s professional journey, it gave me all the feels! I felt sad, empathetic, happy, empowered and inspired. Thank you so much Claudine!
In sending out the call for black registered nutritionists and dietitians, I truly underestimated the responses I would have received. I cannot thank you all enough for sharing your extraordinary stories with me.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your current role?
Who is Claudine? I was born in Cape Town, South Africa during the Apartheid era. Not much is known about our heritage but from family reports our family and many others in the so called ‘coloured’ community were believed to be from Indigenous African and European heritage. Living under the Apartheid regime had a disempowering effect on how I saw myself and my capabilities to achieve on a higher level. Traditionally ‘coloured’ people studied at designated institutions – so I studied at the University of the Western Cape – now one of the leading Higher Education Institutions in South Africa and Africa as a whole.
Due to my personal experiences of oppression under the Apartheid regime, social justice, advocacy, empowerment and education has influenced my niche – personal leadership empowerment, behaviour change and nutrition in sickle cell, being my areas of interest. As a result, I have embarked on a self—funded Professional Doctorate – aimed at integrating nutrition into sickle cell healthcare provision; sickle cell being a marginalised patient population.
After working as an acute dietitian for several years in the NHS, I also worked as a Dietetic Practice Educator Lecturer, in a London-based university. Currently, I work as a fulltime primary care Dietitian in a 5 GP Practice Primary Care Network in an East London borough. In this role, I am able to draw on all my previous dietetic knowledge, skills and experience working as part of a team, using a personalised care approach, to improve the health and wellbeing outcomes of the patient populations we serve. My behaviour change knowledge and interest and personal leadership empowerment, has stood me in good stead to be an authentic practitioner and my hope is to someday implement the first ever nutrition clinic for sickle cell patients.
When did you first know you wanted to pursue nutrition and dietetics?
Interestingly, physiotherapy was my first choice for a career – but that didn’t pan out. When that door closed, I was offered a place on the newly formed Nutrition and Dietetics course at the university. I was part of only the second cohort of students on the course – there were 9 of us who started – the first cohort included only 2 dietitians. I guess this worked out for the best because I needed help with my own eating habits – I loved sweets – I quickly stopped taking sugar in my tea…it was the right thing to do…I’m grateful for the open door because, after qualification it dawned on me that I wasn’t suited for physiotherapy and communication was my area of strength! Besides, I ended up marrying a physiotherapist!
If I didn’t pursue a career in nutrition and dietetics who knows – I may not have embarked on my professional doctorate to integrate nutrition into sickle cell healthcare provision. There was a higher purpose for the closed door to physiotherapy and me stepping into a career in nutrition and dietetics. I have had wonderful opportunities to work with both nutrition and dietetic students which was one of the highlights of my career, next to my work in sickle cell.
What was your most interesting client encounter?
This will have to be a patient (male), of Afro-Caribbean descent with a past medical history of schizophrenia, who was referred to me for weight management advice and support. Despite all the challenges he had, I helped him to lose 20kg over a few months; using one to one dietary advice in an outpatient setting and a range of behaviour change techniques. To celebrate his achievement, I arranged to present him with a certificate during one of our multi-disciplinary team (MDT) meetings. In addition, I wrote an article about his achievements that was printed in the hospital’s newsletter. In appreciation he gave me a hand carved wooden vase, that I still have to this day.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced moving into this field?
Most of the initial challenges I experienced was in South Africa. The first challenge was not being able to find a job post qualification – it took nearly 3 years before I landed my first dietetic job, working as a community dietitian, which was a 2 and 1/2 hours away from my family home.
The second challenge was more related to the difference of how people saw me and the community I came from. My white colleagues would speak negatively about my community, as if were not part of that same group of people. This upset me and I guess compelled me to advocate even more for the marginalised and voiceless people in my world. Even though I was affected by this discrimination, I was still gripped by my own disempowerment, so it would be years later that I felt empowered enough to step out of my comfort zone to make a visible difference.
Its slightly different in the UK, my challenges were more related to professional discrimination, certain colleagues treating me with disrespect, believing they were more qualified than me. I managed to turn this into a positive and decided to embark on a master’s course which surpassed my own belief of what I was capable of. In 2011, I commenced my master’s program in Healthcare Education and Clinical Leadership. The masters provided the turning point for me – in my knowledge and interest in sickle cell as a public health dilemma and I also managed to develop a personal empowerment framework.
To date I have developed a personal leadership and academic empowerment model, and have published articles in both Dietetics today and Complete Nutrition magazine. So, the lesson is – turn your obstacles into opportunities to achieve!
What are some of your favourite meal, snacks and drinks?
Sad to say, I still like sweet things…but my favourite meal is anything Thai, I love the lemongrass and simply love coconut rice, even though normally, I don’t like plain white rice.
Currently my favourite snack is chopped celery, apple and walnuts but I also like chopped dates and walnut – a bit of salted dark chocolate is quite irresistible too!
I need to start me day with a steaming hot, strong milky cup of tea and at Christmas time, I really enjoy a hot glass of mulled wine.
What are your thoughts on diversity in N&D?
I do believe it is important to embrace diversity within nutrition and dietetics. Firstly however, I think it’s important to understand diversity. Diversity means to understand that each individual is unique and recognises individual differences. However, in the past, instead of celebrating our differences people have chosen to use our differences (race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, age, gender) to purport division and separation.
My own experience living under the apartheid regime in South Africa, a clear example of how racial differences was used to cause division and separation leading to oppression, discrimination and disempowerment – many people experiencing powerlessness, marginalisation, being voiceless and open to be controlled. So, when we think about diversity it is imperative to consider these concepts.
It has been very encouraging to see the efforts to diversify the workforce and the nutrition messages to reflect the range of patient populations that we serve. So, in addition to the professional associations promoting diversity, we as nutritionists and dietitians have to use our voice to speak up against pre-justice and discrimination. When we neglect diversity or fail to speak up, we are in fact promoting powerlessness, disempowerment and control which is inherent in oppression.
Therefore, embracing diversity is making a conscious decision and choice to recognise people’s differences and taking action to address the power imbalance of marginalised groups. By taking action, we not only address the disempowerment but in fact, the process can be empowering, enabling people to take more control and responsibility for their own health and wellbeing.
Nutritionists and dietitians have a critical role to play to promote diversity and not leave it up to others to do – we all have our part to play as leaders of self and within our profession!
What’s your biggest pet peeve in terms of being a registered dietitian?
My biggest pet peeve as a dietitian is the fact that in 2021 people still don’t know what a dietitian does and that many people believe we are the food police!
There is much to be done to change this public perception and I guess it starts with how we promote ourselves and the depth and breadth of what we can do – food being only one aspect of our knowledge, skills and experience. For this reason, my mantra is about dietitians being ‘a visible force with an audible voice’ – we have to see ourselves as leaders of self and others, we have to become influences and have impact in all levels of our sphere of interest and practice.
Black or Blue ink pens?
It has to be black for me…black is bold, black stands out, clearly visible even in photocopy’s, and makes a statement on paper…
If you could summarise your career as a nutrition professional in 3 words, what would they be?
Leadership- Empowerment – Trailblazer.
What advice would you give to black youth considering nutrition & dietetics as a career?
In my opinion you have to have the 3 P’s: Passion, Purpose and Persistent (Determination).
Passion is about having a strong desire or enthusiasm for that which you are interested in. Purpose speaks to the reason why you feel so strongly about that which you’re interested in, the why that is driving you forward towards your goals and achievement. Persistent (determination) is continuing in spite of difficulty and opposition, in other words working with a ‘never give up’ mindset and attitude.
Remember, food is more than just nourishment, it is about the social aspects of bringing people together, sharing and enjoying familiar foods, exchanging family recipes, keeping family recipes and celebrating special occasions. What if you can influence this sacred space and introduce some exciting healthy food options and help transform the health of your community and your family in a creative and evidence-based way? What if you can become a role model using healthy food and nutrition ideas to enhance the health and wellbeing outcomes for the people in your country?
Therefore, if you are considering a career in nutrition and dietetics – you stand to make a huge difference, as food and nutrition plays such a central part in the lives of your local communities, your families and your country!