Monica: It’s so great to chat with you, Cara! You’ve accomplished so much in the past few years in the nutritional health world, can you share how your interests around food and nutrition got started?
Cara: I was highly active in my younger years, always participating in team sports and athletic endeavors. I went on to compete as a high jumper at the collegiate level, and my initial interest in nutrition stemmed from a desire to improve my performance.
Unfortunately, that desire combined with my traditional dietetics education set the stage for my struggles with disordered thoughts and behaviors around food and exercise. I felt highly compelled to help others, but at the time failed to recognize how I myself was caught up in the cycle of misinformation and fear around food. I successfully completed my formal education, but that was only the start of the real learning and healing I needed to do in order to do the work I’m doing today.
Monica: I strongly believe that the passion that drives us often stems from the help we need the most for ourselves. How did that experience lead you towards what you wanted to do?
Cara: At the height of my disordered phase, I was introduced to a handful of dietitians and others in the wellness space who practiced from a Health At Every Size (HAES) philosophy. I learned about intuitive eating and felt immediately drawn to the type of approach I so badly wished I had known about before all my struggles started. From there, I moved into a phase of self-learning and additional training because something I heard very early on in this process was “You can only take others as far as you’ve gone yourself.”
Although each and every person’s experience with disordered eating or an eating disorder is unique, my experience informs the way I strive to bring compassion, empathy, and acceptance to my practice. Because I better understand the nuance and complexity of how food plays an important role in health and happiness, my work as a dietitian today looks very different than it did at the beginning of my career.
Monica: It’s so wonderful to recognize that we’re all still learning and growing in life, even if it’s completely different than what you thought it would look like. How has your definition of health & happiness changed?
Cara: To me, being truly healthy and happy runs parallel to being resilient and non-judgmental. While I can certainly appreciate the value of evidence-based practice and striving to always be our best selves, I’ve learned to accept that there are days, weeks, months or longer when that’s not a realistic or practical goal.
Happiness may mean finding contentment with where you are, and being less judgmental means you can focus on what is within reach. I’ve been fortunate to work with clients and families from diverse backgrounds and that’s taught me a lot about the privilege of pursuing health and happiness. In the past I would have used a very objective definition of what health is, but with a broadened view of what it means to “be healthy” I now see there are many different ways for one to achieve wellness, whatever that may look like for them.
Monica: The ability to see things from a new perspective is key to personal growth, how does that help you keep things in perspective?
Cara: I have daily (sometimes hourly!) reminders that it’s OK to not be “perfect” or to not be doing everything “right”. It’s humbling in the sense that I can now clearly see how misguided I was when I first became a dietitian; I sometimes wonder how I may have inadvertently harmed someone’s relationship with food because of something I said or recommended.
But now that I know better I can focus on doing better, although there are still challenges within that. Each day there is something, whether small or significant, that teaches me something new or prompts me to think about something from a different perspective. For a naturally curious person who values learning, it’s exciting and motivating and really gets me excited to continue doing this work.
Monica: Those types of experiences often offer the most insightful lessons of what you really stand for. How has that helped you find your own meaning and purpose?
Cara: The moments that have held great meaning for me are the ones where I’ve been challenged to think of things in a new way or reexamine my thoughts and beliefs about what is right or good. I think I’ve channeled that into my purpose, personally and professionally, because of how valuable those conversations or moments have been for me.
Personally, I’ve been more authentic in how I live day-to-day and been a stronger advocate for my own boundaries and what I want to manifest for my life. Professionally, I’ve drawn a line in the sand in a way, because keeping this purpose in mind informs decisions I make in my businesses and how I interact with clients or the media. There are opportunities that come my way that simply don’t align with what I believe as a dietitian or as a person, so it gives me a lot of clarity on how I want to work in order to make an impact for the most people in a meaningful way.
Monica: Before we go, what is one thing that you’d like others to know that will help them thrive in life?
Cara: The one piece of advice I’d share (if I had to choose only one) would be to get more comfortable existing in the grey. Meaning, we naturally love to divide our world in a very black & white existence.
We like the structure and comfort of being able to say something is right or wrong, good or bad, healthy or unhealthy. But in order to really thrive, I think we have to explore the wide space between dichotomies and understand that a narrowed definition of what it means to be healthy and happy is actually quite limiting.
I would encourage anyone who’s been conditioned to label things in their life in this way to see what it feels like to push back against an “either/or” mindset and welcome more flexibility. It’s easier said than done, but we all start somewhere and as I mentioned before, there’s no such thing as doing it perfectly well.
Learn more about Cara at www.streetsmartnutrition.com.