One Woman Is Creating Holistic Nutrition Options To Combat Mental Health Within Communities Of Color
We sat down with the phenomenal Jennifer Sterling who is a holistic nutritionist, chef and mental health advocate. Sterling is the founder of The Black Girl Healing Project and is diligently working to provide access to healthier options for people of color. Understanding systematic racism and the socio-economic disparities within melaninated communities, Jennifer uses a holistic approach to wellness while honing in on emotional, mental and physical health.
When and why did you start taking a holistic approach to health?
I ventured into the world of holistic health about 15 years ago due to my own health issues. I was experiencing chronic yeast infections, headaches, and wasn’t able to focus or concentrate - something in the health and wellness world we call “brain fog.” I went to several different doctors and specialists to try to figure out what was wrong with me and no one had a clear answer. Typically, I would go to the doctor, describe my symptoms and be prescribed a medication, but the medication never solved the problem long-term and I would end up back in the doctor’s office. The breaking point for me was when my primary care doctor looked at me and said “you know, some people are just sick and there’s nothing we can do about it.”
I refused to claim that for myself and started doing research around my symptoms and possible ways to feel better. I discovered a lot of information on how food and eating could help my symptoms so I changed my diet and it helped - my symptoms improved. I was so impressed that I decided to go into the field of holistic nutrition and help other women with food, eating and their health.
From the lens of a WOC, what is the current state of WOC and/or black women in America in terms of health?
It seems that things are shifting in among younger women of color and I’m starting to see a lot of talk around physical and emotional health as well as self-care, but I think the bigger physical health issues in communities of color are caused by chronic stress.
Stress is a silent killer and we (as people of color) feel the everyday stresses like work-life balance and finances, but also the stresses that come from living in a world where skin color is an issue. It’s an issue when it comes to socioeconomic status - black women with a bachelor’s degree are paid 13% less than white women with a bachelor’s degree - and it’s an issue every time we get into our cars - a study by UC Davis found evidence that on average an unarmed black person is 3.49 times more likely to be shot by the police than an unarmed white person. That’s a lot to carry with you every day!
Carrying around that stress wreaks havoc on our bodies, so it’s no surprise that strokes kill 4 times more 35- to 54-year-old Black Americans than white Americans, Black people have nearly twice the first-time stroke risk of White people. Black people also develop high blood pressure earlier in life -- and with much higher blood pressure levels -- than White people, and nearly 42% of black men and more than 45% of black women aged 20 and older have high blood pressure. There are other factors, of course, but stress plays a really big part, I believe.
What are some of the biggest challenges in getting communities of color to eat healthier?
There’s a lot of information out there about what we should be eating, but most of it isn’t accessible to the average person, with an average income. There are also a lot of diets that are offered to communities of color since we struggle with metabolic issues like diabetes and in many cases, the medical community attributes health issues like diabetes to weight gain and/or weight loss. When we center the conversation around weight, change becomes really difficult - we become fixated on a number which very often leads people to have strained relationships with food and keeps them from developing healthy habits that are sustainable.
In my work, it’s important to work with the budget that my clients have. It would be great if we could all afford grass-fed, pasture raised meats and organic fruits and veggies, but that’s not an option for everyone. It takes a little more effort, but if eating well doesn’t feel accessible people of color will continue to believe that the world of wellness and eating well is another thing that you can’t partake in unless you’re white and wealthy.
What is the Black Girl Healing Project? When did you start it and why?
The Black Girl Healing Project is a space I created to help women of color learn to treat themselves well physically, mentally, and emotionally. I wanted to open up the conversation around mental health in communities of color and help break down some of the stigma around mental health, mental illness, and seeking support. I also wanted to create a space where wellness was accessible - not just for people of a higher socioeconomic status.
You advocate and work in spaces discussing mental health … how does this correlate to holistic and healthy living … especially for POC?
Everything is connected and nothing happens in the body independently, so if we aren’t physically well, it affects our emotional well-being and vice versa. For that reason it’s important to look at health in a holistic manner. I also think that as POC we have other issues to contend with that affect our ability to be well and all of those things need to be taken into consideration when it comes to our health. We can’t talk about stress in communities of color without addressing issues like racism and systemic oppression and we can’t talk about healthy living and eating without discussing access and why as POC we often lack access - these are all things that affect us physically, mentally and emotionally, so I feel as though I can’t be a holistic practitioner and just talk about food. I wish it was that simple, but it isn’t.
Is community important to you and why? How are you building a community around your platform/mission?
Yes, community to super important to me. I did everything alone for a really long time and realized that I may have gotten where I was going easier and much faster if I had asked for help.
When we commune with others we open up so many opportunities to learn and grow, which is why I spend so much time building my communities online. The Black Girl Healing Project is rooted in community. I’ve even opened up my calendar to have 100 conversations with women of color around race and mental health. I want to their stories and make authentic connections, then find a way to bring all of these amazing women together so we can support each other in our healing. We can only get so far on our own, but together we are a force.
What can we expect from you in the near future?
I’ll be sharing a lot more information about mental health on The Black Girl Healing Project blog and later this year, hosting a few wellness events for women of color in NYC.
What is your overall MANTRA in one sentence?
Treat Yourself Well.