Nutrition for the Heart

by Risa Kamio and Paula Fabiola Ramírez Hernández

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Risa Kamio

Risa Kamio, born and raised in Japan, has been practicing Buddhism for 18 years. After earning a BA in Education from Soka University in Japan, she moved to Denmark where she studied for a BA in Nutrition and Health. Currently, she runs a consultancy in Copenhagen where she teaches cooking and nutrition.

Paula Fabiola Ramírez Hernández

Paula Fabiola Ramírez Hernández has a BA in Food Science and Nutrition and specialist qualifications in restaurant management and food hygiene. She was born and raised in Mexico, where she currently lives and works for a private laboratory. She has been practicing Buddhism for 28 years.

How would you describe your job?

Risa: Nutrition is a fairly new and growing field in Denmark, so one can find many creative ways to work as a nutritionist.

In Denmark, families typically eat fast food such as pizza and shawarma (kebab meat) every week—this is one of the problems. As part of my work, I have been visiting families who have overweight children, children who refuse to eat certain foods or have very unbalanced diets. I help them out through dialogue, offering guidance, teaching them what to eat and how to cook, as well as teaching mothers what they can do for children who refuse to eat, what foods to buy and so on. I teach cooking to provide inspiration and skills to parents so they can involve their children in the kitchen and share with them recipes they can use in their daily lives.

Paula: A large part of my job is training people in the hygienic handling of food. Our clients are in the food service industry, such as restaurants, institutional cafeterias and hotels. It’s my job to make recommendations to individual clients on improving hygiene based on a laboratory analysis of the foods they are serving. I also provide training to operators to improve their performance.

How did you first become interested in your field?

Paula: I wanted to study nutrition because it was a relatively unknown field at the time. Later, I found out that many tourists have serious misconceptions about food-related illnesses in my country, which is unfortunate since Mexico is a marvelous place that can compete with any other tourist destination. I was also interested in this field because the work of a nutritionist is very practical and the fieldwork brings us into contact with such a broad range of interests: government departments trying to reduce costs, health administrators aiming to provide appropriate menus for various categories of food service, and quality control experts seeking to establish appropriate hygiene standards.

related article An Open Life An Open Life by  Michele Di Mascio,  USA Through practicing Nichiren Buddhism, Michele Di Mascio was able to to come to terms with his homosexuality. Through efforts to support his HIV-infected partner, Michele entered upon a journey with leading world scientists to find a way to eradicate the HIV virus. Risa: I’ve been interested in nutrition, food and cooking since I was a child. Seeing firsthand the differences in diet between Japan and Denmark, I wanted to gain a better understanding of these differences from the viewpoint of nutrition. Moreover, considering the ongoing globalization of food culture, I wanted to contribute to the health and happiness of the people of Denmark through my studies in nutrition.

What do you find most interesting and rewarding about your job?

Risa: Through my work, I get to meet various kinds of people. Changing people’s eating habits is essentially about changing their lifestyle—it’s a job that influences people’s attitudes toward many things, not just diet.

Paula: The most interesting challenge is finding ways to persuade clients to modify their habits and to prepare safe food, overcoming the lack of instruction, training and even, in some cases, lack of education. Working with people who have the desire to improve and seeing how my recommendations can help them in that process is truly rewarding.

What are the keys to being a good nutritionist? How do you strive to develop your own capacity in this regard?

Paula: In my work, I have to constantly train myself and be up-to-date on current regulations. I also have to be very observant so that, when conducting inspections, I can see how the processes are being performed and detect areas that could be improved.

Risa: Of course, it’s important to be up-to-date on the latest studies, as there are constant new discoveries in the field of nutrition. However, no matter how knowledgeable I may be, if I can’t effectively convey my knowledge on nutrition so that my clients and students can take action and improve their lives, my knowledge is useless. In this regard, my daily SGI Buddhist activities, in which I am constantly interacting with and supporting others, help me grow as a human being, which in turn helps me grow as a nutritionist.

an array of colorful fruits [© David Malan/Getty Images]

What are the key nutritional considerations for people who are reaching an advanced age?

Paula: The first thing that should be considered is their overall health condition, so that a nutritional plan that takes into account any existing illnesses or other physical requirements can be designed. With respect to my field of work, older people are a risk group because their immune systems are weaker, and the presence of microorganisms in food can compromise their health condition. Safe food is fundamental for older people, who are more vulnerable to infection.

related article Buddhism in Cuba Buddhism in Cuba by  Joannet Delgado, general director,  SGI-Cuba Joannet Delgado, general director of SGI-Cuba, shares her journey of discovering Nichiren Buddhism and how it took root in her country. Risa: In addition to being well hydrated and having nutritional support, it’s also important to make sure they’re taking in enough calories. As people grow older, their sense of taste and smell declines, as does their ability to chew, often leading to a loss of appetite. This, in turn, leads to weight loss. Therefore, even though high-calorie and high-sodium intake is usually seen as unhealthy for younger people, it is often the opposite for older people. For example, when the food has a stronger taste, older people can better taste its flavor and tend to enjoy it more. If they are recommended to eat lots of vegetables as younger people are, older people are unable to take in so much food and thus will not have sufficient sources of energy. Moreover, “nutrition for the heart” is also very important.

In terms of nutrition, it is completely normal to have difficulty changing one’s lifestyle, even though you know that you shouldn’t eat something because it’s bad for you. In other words, just telling someone who has a sweet tooth that sugar is bad for them won’t necessarily be an effective way to stop them from eating it. You need to find the right approach—not just in terms of nutrition—in order to be effective.

How has the philosophy of Buddhism influenced your approach to your work?

Paula: Buddhism has taught me to have respect for all people and the dignity of life. I often deal with people from lower socioeconomic groups or those with little education. But it is specifically these kinds of people whom I most want to train, and I have found that if I do not respect them sincerely, my recommendations are not heard. In turn, the supervisors or the owners are often arrogant because of their higher status, financial situation or education level. Although sometimes it’s difficult, I hold onto the knowledge that they are also Buddhas and deserving of my genuine respect, even when I don’t agree with their actions.

Risa: Because you cannot help people with knowledge alone, a person’s character becomes important. Through studying Buddhism every day, I am learning how to believe in and respect the life of each and every person, giving them my full attention, as well as gaining specific and practical advice on the actions that I can take to do this. Buddhism is a constant source of courage and creativity.

[Adapted from the October 2012 issue of the SGI Quarterly]

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