Meet Zeina Khawam, a registered dietitian-nutritionist and member of l’Ordre professionnel des diététistes du Québec and Dietitians of Canada. Currently working in Montreal and the West Island is where Zeina consults an active clientele base that desires to change their lifestyle habits, whether it is to lose weight, increase muscle mass, improve their performance or simply live healthier.
In this interview, Zeina helps us to understand that eating is a pleasure whilst demonstrating that leading a healthy lifestyle is not about deprivation and self-guilt but rather based on making better choices more often.
Hey Zeina, can you introduce yourself to us?
I am a registered dietitian in Montreal, Qc, Canada and I help people improve their relationship with food. Contrary to popular belief, I don’t tell people what they can and can’t eat. There’s so much out there geared towards weight loss for health and physical reasons when in reality, weight loss often isn’t the answer. My mission is to help people realise this and make peace with their body and with their food. Food is amazing and we should all be enjoying it!
As a registered dietitian & nutritionist, can you take us through your journey as to how you arrived at where you are now?
If you told me a few years ago that I would be working for myself in private practice, I wouldn’t have believed you. I always thought I’d be working in a hospital or other public setting. Here is more info:
Before I became a dietitian, I was actually a biochemist. I would spend my days in a lab researching the biological mechanisms behind ALS. As you can imagine, it was a pretty quiet job, with minimal human interactions. I realised I needed to work with people, help them, but also see my impact first hand. So, I then applied to pursue a master’s in physiotherapy but didn’t get accepted (my fault for applying to the top schools!). Now without a plan B and a lot of time on my hands, I completed an online personality test to find out which field I should work in and got “teaching”. So I put my love of food and teaching together and realised I want to be a dietitian.
After completing my 3.5-year undergraduate degree, I searched for jobs in the public sector for months before I come to the conclusion that positions are very limited with all of the budget cuts. I then stumbled across a job posting for a sub-contractor nutritionist in a gym thinking I’ll do this part-time until I find something else. Just a few weeks into it, I realised this was for me. I decided I will make this a full-time job and I did!
What are a typical 24 hours like for you?
This is a tough question to answer as every day is completely different. Although I have no fixed schedule, I try to designate 8 hours of my day to work. Because clients usually see me in the morning or evening, I often have long breaks during the day, that usually end up being my time to work out (a bonus of working in a kinesiology clinic). During these 8 hours, I travel between my 6 offices around the island of Montreal, see clients, have team meetings, meet with potential referral agents, schedule clients, build relationships, and answer a lot of emails.
You are a member of l’Ordre professionnel des diététistes du Québec and Dietitians of Canada. Did you train or take any courses? If so what, and where did you study?
I graduated from McGill University with a Bachelor’s degree in Dietetics, which included internships in multiple settings, such as hospitals, schools, and long-term care facilities. Outside of Quebec, you need to pass a test to be part of the province’s order, so lucky me!
You consult your clients who have personal desires to change their lifestyle habits, what strategies do you have in place to help them do so?
My strategy is based on compassion. I take a mindful and weight-neutral approach when counselling my clients. This means focusing on success factors that are not weight. For example, other ways to measure success include increased energy, lifting heavier weight at the gym, better sleep, or improving our relationship with their food and/or body.
It’s always best to focus on one change at a time. Doing too much all at once is overwhelming and that’s an extra source of stress no one wants. So whether that change is noticing negative thoughts, eating 2 fruits per day, or eating 1 meatless meal per week, it’s always best to start small to keep motivation high.
Can you tell us how you are helping your clients to make better food choices more often through The Foodie Rd?
My practice, website, and social media channels are focused on providing information and tips to improve our relationship with our food, interspersed with delicious recipes! Food choices don’t only include what we eat, but also why and how we eat. So better food choices don’t necessarily mean eating foods we consider “healthier,” but also choosing when and why we eat. The best strategy I have for changing lifestyle habits is to learn to listen and trust our hunger and fullness signals, which isn’t that obvious.
Can you explore the importance of fuelling our bodies correctly?
I often hear people say they work out so they can eat more. But in reality, it should be the opposite. Eating foods that make us feel good physically and mentally can greatly improve our energy and help us tackle the day and night through better sleep! Our bodies are like cars if the fuel tank is empty the car stalls. Our body will do the same if it doesn’t get enough — something the majority of clients are struggling with as they are afraid to gain weight. Food is our only source of energy so we should choose wisely.
Who does the team involve at The Foodie Rd?
Although I work on my own, I have the privilege of working with multidisciplinary teams that include personal trainers, physiotherapists, massage therapists, osteopath, etc. They provide a great deal of support and help with tasks such as creating marketing material, administration, and many, many more! My team also includes the loved ones that allow me to bounce ideas off of them. That’s how The Foodie RD came to life.
What does your company structure look like?
It’s just me.
As you continue to grow, what important factors did you consider when looking at the scalability of your business model?
Right now, everything is measured in terms of hours worked, but eventually, I would like to take certain things online with courses, ebooks, etc. This is something that is easily achievable in the next few years and would help me spread my message while allowing me to grow.
Where can you see yourself within the next 3-5 years?
That’s a good question as I tend to have different dreams every day! I would definitely like to have things being more stable in terms of profits and hours, allowing more leisure and travel time. I would love to work more closely with other dieticians (if you’re reading this and are a dietitian, don’t hesitate to contact me). Honestly, it’s continuing to do what I love, which is also what I’m doing now. So there won’t be a ton of changes, it’ll mostly focus on making things better.
How are you planning to expand The Foodie Rd?
There’s a lot of potential here. My main options right now are online courses, tapping into the corporate world, and having a team of dieticians. But who knows where life can take me.
Can you tell us what areas you have struggled in professionally as a registered dietitian-nutritionist?
I wouldn’t say struggled but still, struggle. Things aren’t perfect and probably won’t be. If it were, we would never be able to grow. If I had one big flaw, it would be not saying no and setting boundaries. Its tough at first to not do EVERYTHING as we are desperately trying to be everywhere and get as much exposure as possible. I now want to focus of a few niche areas and perfect those.
Have you ever had any other mentor? If so how has this benefitted you to grow?
I can’t choose just one, as I think that anyone who believes in you is in some way a mentor. This can be a family member, friend, neighbour, colleague, or even clients. Knowing they have confidence in your work is motivation and their advice is often what a mentor would say, and I would like to thank every single person that has helped.
Still, I have to say that working closely with other business owners has helped me a lot with the business aspect of things by just being able to observe their work. There’s nothing like seeing what happens behind the scenes to help you get a sense of what it takes to make it big.
What outlets do use to market your nutritional services?
It’s mostly word of mouth, but I love using social media. In another life, I would become a social media marketing expert. I also use my website, act as a guest blogger, and offer workshops to get my work known.
Which methods are you using to build your own network?
Nothing beats face-to-face connection. Meeting new people has always been a fun pastime for me, even before working for myself, so now I use it to create meaningful and useful connections. I like to attend networking events here and there, but I am known to message other professionals that seem interesting and share the same values as me.
What do you believe are the common misconceptions about being a dietitian-nutritionist?
Oh, where do I start with this one? Most people think our jobs are to be the food police; to tell people what they can and can’t eat. My work can’t be more different from that. Clients are often stunned when I tell them they can eat whatever they want, as long as it makes them feel good physically and mentally. We call this food freedom.
Others also think dieticians eat perfectly, eat salads all the time, only help people with weight loss, and make meal plans. Hopefully, by now you see that’s not what we do.
What would you like to see changed for millennials in business?
I think millennials have the power to change things for the better as they are more vocal, especially with the power of social media. Now, they just need to be taken more seriously. They tend to have a bad reputation for being demanding and lazy, when in reality, they are trying to be as efficient as possible. They see the benefits of work-life balance and gender equality, so now it’s just a matter of finding the best way to fight for these issues.
What is the best piece of advice you have received to date?
This is going to sound very cliché, but there’s nothing truer than stepping outside your comfort zone. Some may take this to the extreme and cause themselves a large amount of stress, but I think you can step outside your comfort zone in small increments. Although it doesn’t always work out as intended, I would rather fail at something than regret not doing it at all. I often ask myself “What’s the worst that can happen” when I’m afraid of doing something. And usually, the worse that can happen isn’t bad at all. So go out there and get it!
What is the number 1 critical lesson you have learned in your career so far?
Do. I tend to overthink everything, from marketing material to blog posts, when I should be doing. Of course, everything has to be well thought out and well presented, but overthinking is mentally exhausting and puts a restriction on the amount of time to create beautiful things.
How do you create an evenly balanced work and personal life?
As described above, this is something I still struggle with but have seen improvements. As important as work is to me, I also tell myself it’s just that. Work will always be there, but friends and family won’t. I now regularly schedule leisure time in my calendar to make sure I take time for myself. Leisure time also includes sitting at home doing absolutely nothing because it’s needed.
The highlight of your career so far?
The people, since I’m a people person and I thrive on building relationships. Sure work is great, I have greatly expanded my points of service and continue to do so, but what makes works so great are the people I meet, whether it is colleagues or clients.
What gives you ultimate career satisfaction?
I love seeing clients freed from the dieting cycle. This isn’t an easy feat as it involves going through multiple stages of grieving, fear, guilt, and sadness, but the end result is magical.
Which other leading entrepreneurs and pioneering game changers do you also admire and why?
I love seeing other dieticians thrive in this competitive industry. I started by following local talent and now follow dieticians around the world. I admire the ones who look at the big picture and include social justice issues (which are at the heart of Health at Every Size) and they are listed in the next question.
How would you say you are intending to use your voice to educate others in the nutritional industry?
We need to end the diet culture now! It does a lot more harm than good and I want dieticians as well as other health professionals to be aware of the unintentional harm some diet-related practices cause. Luckily there are some amazing dieticians doing this already (notably Marci Evans, Rebecca Scritchfield, Fiona Willer, Fiona Sutherland, Aaron Flores, and many more), but there is still a lot of work to be done. I am using all the channels right now to educate: social media, blogs, and face-to-face discussions. Don’t be afraid to ask me more about it!
What is a good article or book you have read recently?
‘Body Kindness’ by Rebecca Scritchfield. The title says it all.
What does your Podcast playlist look like?
Right now it’s a mix of nutrition podcasts from dieticians who practice Health At Every Size and psychology podcasts. I’ve always been fascinated by the brain and behaviour! The last one was The Mindful Dietitian (aka Fiona Sutherland)
How do you measure your own terms of success?
Of course, there are monetary profits, but for me, success is making a difference and being satisfied with my work. Being the go-to person when it comes to nutrition and improving our relationship with food/body would bring great joy. Every time a client tells me they are happy with my work, that is a success, it is as simple as that.
What does #BEYOUROWN mean to you?
To me, this means doing things your way. There are a ton of books, websites, and journals with business and personal development advice, but you always have to do things that feel right for you, not only for the people around you. Personality is what differentiates businesses out there, so #beyourown boss, grow at your own pace and always rely on yourself as your greatest asset.
Lastly, what is next for you and The Foodie Rd?
We’ll just have to wait and see.