So one of my goals for this blog is for it to serve as a platform for the voice of the South Asian woman, for her to become more visible to the public, and for her to be able to speak on behalf of herself. One way that East Street plans to accomplish this is by celebrating the South Asian woman and focusing on her achievements, advances, and contributions to society.
Thus begins East Street’s Celebrating the South Asian Female series!
So we begin with quite an opener: Samina Qureshi, a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) and Health Coach, currently practicing in Chicago, Il. Not only is she saving the world through disease prevention and management (aka through nutrition), but together, Samina and her husband, Shadid have been able to give back to their ancestral village in Bangladesh by providing better access to health services, assistance to families, and promoting education as the key to success for children in the village.
We met in the sumptuous and cozy lounge of The Allis in Chicago, where some illuminative conversations took place; we talked about everything from the diaspora of our South Asian American generation to the quality of our food at the Allis (because, dietitians/food lovers).
Samina inspired and enlightened me so much through her own experiences, volunteer efforts, and passions. I hope you all will benefit as well.
1. Tell us a bit more about yourself
Well, I am a Registered and Licensed Dietitian Nutritionist and am currently working in the field of corporate wellness. I received my B.S. in Nutritional Sciences/Dietetics from the University of Texas at Austin. After undergrad I was accepted into the Coordinated Program in Dietetics at UT Austin where I completed 1200 hours of supervised practice rotations and prepared to sit for the RD exam (the necessary requirements for accreditation as a registered dietitian).
I grew up in a town with a pretty decent sized desi (Indian, Pakistani, and/or Bangladeshi) community where I was well immersed into culture and religion. I was raised in a very family-oriented environment. My parents and grandparents had a significant impact in helping me become the person that I am today. My paternal grandmother moved in with my family when I was 4 years old and I remember my brother and I spending most of our childhood with her. Unfortunately, my grandmother fell ill and needed assistance with daily to day living. My brother and I would often take care of her when my parents were away. We would feed her, give her company, etc. I believe having the opportunity to take care of a family member at such a young age helped me to become a more nurturing and compassionate person. So I desired a career that would also allow me to care for people, to educate them and to help them live a better quality of life.
2. What inspired you to become a dietitian?
I always knew that I wanted to do something related to health and wellness. And I noticed people in our community were predisposed to many chronic conditions that could have been prevented or delayed by taking better care of themselves. I found that aspect of medicine/healthcare to be particularly interesting. However, back then I didn’t know that there was a medical profession such as that of a registered dietitian. I did take my first nutrition class sophomore year of college and learned, not only of the profession, but also of the many directions that one can take in this field (clinical, community, corporate, sports, etc).
During undergrad I volunteered as a research assistant for a mindful eating intervention study with the Assistant Dean of the Nursing School. The mindful eating intervention was tested on perimenopausal women to assess the effectiveness of weight gain prevention. As this group of people tend to have an increased risk for weight gain, increasing their abdominal waist circumference, which in turn increases their risk for cardiovascular disease and diabetes. We conducted weekly sessions where we practiced mindful eating meditation exercises, discussed general principles of weight management, and coached participants on personalized weekly goals. Since I wasn’t a nursing student and was instead studying nutrition, I was able to answer the participants’ questions related to nutrition during the sessions and help discern between the evidence-based versus the media-based nutrition information out there.
One experience that was a turning point for me was working with a war veteran in this study. She went from being fed by the military for years and years, to having to figure out how to feed herself. She had no idea how to cook or even how to buy groceries. It was basically teaching her how to live a life again after the military. This experience was eye opening for me. I didn’t know that people had such little knowledge about nutrition, even navigating through a grocery store without feeling overwhelmed and confused. Working with her specifically was a turning point and helped for me to see my purpose and solidified my career choice. I realized that there is a dire need for someone to provide evidence-based information and filter out the vast amounts of nutrition-related material out there.
3. Where do you feel the role of a dietitian lies in the field of medicine and health?
The role is crucial in prevention and management of diseases. Not only for medical nutrition therapy but for day-to-day life as well. There is nothing more important in your life than your health. Dietitians address this notion directly and work individually with their patients towards better health, especially before they’re prescribed endless medications (which only increase the cost of living). Physicians only know so much about nutritional science and education, that realm can only be fulfilled by a dietitian.
People often believe that a prescribed medication is a “magic cure” for their condition. For example, if someone is diagnosed with hypertension and their physician wants to wait a trial period to see if the medication is necessary. Often times, the person will then go home and do absolutely nothing to change their lifestyle habits. What usually ends up happening is that the physician gives them their “magic cure” for the elevated blood pressure and they keep eating the same foods and living the same sedentary life. Medication can only do so much to treat a person’s high blood pressure and not learning how to include nutritious foods or physical activity into their lifestyle can increase their chances of other chronic illnesses.
People think prescription medications are magic because they take the pills and then believe that they no longer have hypertension which is completely untrue. All it does is treat the condition, it does not get rid of it. Making long term, lifestyle changes such as making healthful food choices, exercising regularly, etc will not only treat the symptoms, but actually prevent or delay the need for medication.
That’s where the role of a dietitian is really important. People should know that they can change their fate. That a diagnosis is not a death sentence nor a reason to rely on medications as a “quick fix”. Rather, it should be a motivation to change your lifestyle habits for the better. Yes, it does take a lot of effort and time, better health isn’t something that happens overnight. Quick fixes and instant results have really been glamorized by the media; but you have you ever heard of someone waking up one day and running a marathon without any training or becoming a lawyer overnight? It all takes discipline, time, investment and effort.
4. As a female health care provider, particularly in the field of nutrition, how do you feel about the worldwide nutrition-related epidemic that is so rampant. especially for women in male-dominated social structures?
Women are the anchors of their families and are in a unique position that allows them to influence the health of their family. Often times women do the housework, manage their children, and cook meals all while holding down a full-time job. In a fast-paced world, family meals are the perfect time for everyone to spend quality time together and reconnect. Women, especially in desi communities, should take this opportunity to get their spouses and children involved! Young children can participate by rinsing or drying produce, setting the table, or pouring water into everyone’s glasses. You can have fun with it and designate your spouse to be the official taste tester. The more time you spend communicating together as family the better! Children learn about food habits, positive or negative, at a very early age. When the whole family contributes during mealtime, kids are more likely to eat the finished product, try new food and adopt healthy habits.
5. Tell us about your efforts in the village communities of Bangladesh
Shadid’s grandfather’s legacy is something that we want to keep alive. He was able to donate a large plot of his land to his village in Bangladesh. Over time many projects have been put into place to enhance the villagers’ lives including a primary school, high school, mosque, free clinic, and a marketplace. These projects along with many others are done solely by donation from family and friends that we hold extremely close to our hearts. Most recently, Shadid and I implemented a tutoring program, since the village is behind Dhaka’s school standards, where the top students in the village tutor their fellow students. Our goal is to empower the younger generation of villagers through education.