Healthy Nurse, Healthy Nation™ - #healthynurse Spotlight Series - Deitra Dennis, RN, NBC-HWC
Nurse Uses Coaching and Cooking to Inspire Healthy Change
Nurses have a knack for knowing what people need. #Healthynurse Deitra Dennis, RN, NBC-HWC, is no exception. But she takes it a step further by also sensing the needs of the greater community. Then, Deitra works to make change happen.
Her quest to help others adopt a healthier lifestyle has led Deitra to pursue nursing, coaching, and teaching. But she recognizes that change, even within herself, isn’t always easy.
“We can know the ‘how,’ but if we don’t have a strong ‘why’ when it comes to making change, it’s hard to see it through,” Deitra says. “I know my ‘why’ is: I want to be healthy. I want to be an example for others. And I want to change the narrative of my community — my community of nurses and the African American community in general.”
Called to Coaching
Deitra didn’t start her career as a nurse coach; she was called to it. While working at the bedside, she realized coaching might be an alternative way to reach the people she was most concerned about. These were patients readmitted to the hospital often for chronic conditions, ones that could be helped by simple lifestyle interventions.
“I want to meet people where they are,” Deitra says. “As a coach, I can take my nursing experience from the bedside to the sidelines to support people and help them overcome barriers to reach their goals.”
She began her coaching career focused on helping Black women improve their heart health. But when she saw a statistic stating nurses are less healthy than the average American in certain respects, she knew what she wanted to do.
“There’s a disconnect here because we are supposed to be the model and the example,” Deitra says. “So, I pivoted and started working with nurses.” She felt compelled to help the nursing community make healthy lifestyle changes and focused on Black female nurses. “It’s critical for us to be the example. When patients see someone who looks like them making healthy choices, they are more open to change.”
Looking Inward to Help Others
Deitra knew that to successfully coach nurses on being a healthy example for patients, she would need to become a healthy example herself. “I had to look inward at how I was living. I needed to prioritize self-care and show up as the best version of myself,” she says. “It was the only way to make an impact on the people I hoped to help.”
Deitra began with nutrition, adopting a plant-forward lifestyle. She even worked with family members to recreate her favorite cultural recipes using only plant-based ingredients. But it wasn’t enough on its own. She added small changes to support her spiritual, physical, and emotional well-being and, in the process, dropped 65 pounds.
“Nursing is a serving profession, and we often celebrate our self-sacrifice,” Deitra says. “It’s a mindset that if I put myself first, I won’t be able to care for others. But it’s just the opposite. If you take care of yourself first, you show up better to care for others.”
Making a Plant-Based Lifestyle Accessible for All
Deitra realized many of the nurses she coached also struggled to maintain a healthy diet. The key to Deitra’s success was modifying her favorite cultural dishes to be plant-based instead of abandoning the traditional food she loved. She knew that if people understood their heritage and its link to plant-based eating, they’d realize they could have the cultural meals they enjoy — and adopt a healthier lifestyle.
While searching for a curriculum focused on plant-forward eating and African Americans, Deitra connected with Old Ways, a food and nutrition nonprofit focusing on cultural food traditions. They offer a program called A Taste of African Heritage (ATOAH) and welcomed the chance to work with Deitra.
She works with Old Ways as a certified instructor and an Ambassador of African Heritage and Health. Deitra is determined to help her community connect to their African heritage and eat healthier. Her community endeavors as an ambassador have included:
- Enlisting African American restaurants to embrace “Meatless Mondays”
- Giving cooking demonstrations at community health fairs
- Introducing ATOAH to the Georgia’s Farmers Market Association, which now partners with Old Ways to train local farmers, market managers, and health educators to teach the course
Deitra also noticed that the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) offers culturally inspired power plates — an alternative to the traditional food pyramid — which establish the 4 main food groups as fruits, grains, beans, and vegetables. She connected PCRM with Old Ways and helped create the African Heritage Power Plate. It serves as a guide for creating healthy and familiar African-inspired food.
“I take the title ‘ambassador’ to heart because it is my passion to help the community be healthier,” Deitra says. “And when you know how to utilize our cultural foods, you can eat healthy and still enjoy the foods that feed your soul.”
Deitra Dennis, RN, NBC-HWC, is a health and wellness coach, licensed Food for Life instructor for the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), an Old Ways’ Ambassador of African Heritage and Health, and certified professional plant-based chef.
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