Meet the dietitian: Natasha de Almeida

Hi everyone! My name is Natasha de Almeida, I am a 26-year-old Registered Dietitian from Johannesburg, and I absolutely love food. I spend a lot of my time eating, or thinking about eating, or cooking food, or watching people cook food on TV. Food brings people together, when we’re happy or sad, and there are so many different cuisines to enjoy from all around the world.

My food journey has been a bumpy one. I went from being an incredibly fussy child, teenager and young adult to someone who tries to taste and enjoy different types of foods. Before all of this, the look of ANY vegetable got me shifting uncomfortably in my chair. If there were vegetables on the menu for supper, I’d try to switch plates with my sister while my parents weren’t looking. Anything to avoid the absolute torture that it was to eat a single pea. That has changed now, but one thing that has always been with me is my sweet tooth. Anything chocolate and I’ll be happy. If I could cover everything in bar-one sauce, trust me, I would. 

I studied Dietetics at the University of Pretoria. A health-related degree appealed to me as it would allow me to help people improve their lives. I’ve always wanted to help anyone or anything, and when I was younger, it was animals. I aspired to be a veterinarian, that is until a 7-year-old me shadowed one performing surgery on a dog. I left that room with a face toned deep purple and a broken dream. Though now, if I look back, I might have studied veterinary science if I hadn’t studied dietetics.

I am half-Mozambican and grew up there, where my whole school, pre-school through to high school, had seven hundred students. So, going from that to a giant, seven-campus university with tens of thousands of students was intimidating to say the least. My university years were incredibly challenging but also rewarding in many ways. When starting at university they recommend that you partake in the ‘three pillars of university life’: academics, social events, and exercise. So that’s what I tried to do, even though it seemed pretty unrealistic at times. Balancing all three was not easy, but I managed to make good friends, pass my degree timeously, and become a first team varsity soccer player in those four years.

I think I only truly realised that health was important to me during my studies.  When I started learning about nutrition and health, I was able to reflect, and think about how many lives are affected by nutrition related problems, which I feel like I was very ignorant about before. Studying dietetics opened my eyes to how nutrition can truly affect your health, and that there is more to my interests than just a love of food.

Last year, I completed my one year of community service at a community clinic. Throughout the year I learned a lot about myself and the dietetic profession. I experienced the triumphs and the pitfalls of working as a dietitian. The most challenging aspect of the job being a lack of resources, both in the environment in which we work, and those of the individuals we counsel. The highlight of my job so far has been helping the most disadvantaged improve, even in the smallest of ways, such as helping a child with severe cerebral palsy gain that little bit of weight. My career has just begun, there is much room for growth and experience, and I look forward to many more highlights and learning curves. At the moment, in between completing short courses to improve my knowledge, I am slowly looking at starting my own practice. I also have a keen interest in clinical dietetics and look forward to getting back into a hospital setting.

Being a dietitian comes with many stereotypes, and since I qualified, I have noticed a few misconceptions that people have about the profession, the worst being that we are incredibly judgemental about what others eat. It is sad to hear a friend try to defend their eating when you sit down with them at the dinner table. We do not watch your every bite and dissect every meal you eat. When you season your food, we don’t picture little salt monsters dancing in circles above your head, chanting and waving blood pressure cuffs in the air. We are just like you in that we enjoy food as well, and it is okay to have preferences or dislikes. Some people do not know this about me, but I have texture issues when it comes to certain foods, one example being strawberries. I love the smell, taste and look of them, but I can’t eat them because of their texture. This is something my friends and family joke about with me on a regular basis! We are all different.

Another frustration is the immediate mention of a meal plan when the word ‘dietitian’ pops up in conversation. Yes, we can definitely help you with weight management, but there is so much more that dietitians can do. A dietitian may have helped your uncle with diabetes control his blood sugar by educating him about carbohydrates and insulin use. They may have helped your premature baby gain weight while in the NICU through careful calculation of their nutrient requirements, and they may have analysed that very menu that you choose from at your favourite restaurant. There’s so much more!

One last thing that I do not like hearing as a dietitian, is the idea that eating healthy involves a boring diet that gets rid of your favourite foods.  There are so many ways to make a healthy diet enjoyable, including using some of your favourite foods, but in different ways and amounts. Everything in moderation.  

With all that being said, the biggest thing I look forward to is helping people from all walks of life, educating those in need, and myself in the process. I am proud to be a Dietitian.