Updated: Dec 15, 2021
We were delighted to sit down with nutrition specialist and queer health coach, Dr. Sunni Patel, to talk about his relationship with food, what drives him, and why he's so passionate about supporting the LGBTQ+ community.
Who are you? Tell us a little about your journey. I’m Dr Sunni – a health coach with a PhD in risk factors for disease and a specialist interest in Gut Health. I started off in research and academia working around the world before I started a corporate journey in global and UK management. A series of life events made me reevaluate my purpose and passion before deciding to leave the comfort of a corporate role to create my own business. I retrained as a culinary medicine coach and also use my previous qualification as a personal trainer to educate, entertain and spread the power of food, nutrition and wellness.
My life has been built up with a series of life-affirming and life-changing events. Growing up as one of the only Asian families in a extremely racist area of the West Midlands in the early 90’s meant my family and I became accustomed to daily tirades and abuse (verbal and physical). Going into my late teens I developed an eating disorder over a number of years that involved obsessive fasting and purging that dominated my life for quite a while. In my late 20’s, I was diagnosed with inflammatory bowel disease which knocked me for six. In between all this I focused on my ambition to do well professionally, and put aside my own needs of discovering my queer journey and managing my mental and physical wellbeing.
The last few years have been difficult but also empowering, as I have had to navigate my issues around disordered eating and body dysmorphia as well as having serious issues and flare ups with my health (including being hospitalised twice during lockdown). On top of that, at the tender age of 35 I decided to come out to my family after spending 2 years of finding myself battling depression and suicidal thoughts.
Fast forward to today, I use my lived experiences to coach people and organisations on holistic interventions to promote well-being, productivity and happiness. I use my rediscovered passion for food to develop recipes for clients and companies, and cater for retreats as well as do cooking demos and cook-a-longs. I want to show everyone that food science can be sexy, informative and life-changing. My business and platform also helps me to tap into my creativity to showcase food, fashion and lifestyle, and I bring that creativity to everything that I do.
How has getting to know yourself better evolved your relationship with food?
I have had a tumultuous journey with food, to say the least. I grew up as a passionate foodie that cooked from age 12 and I'm grateful my parents allowed me to explore cooking with food at home. But I have also had to go through a number of restrictive diets to help control my health condition, but also navigate the hangover of bulimia which has limited my experience with food. I have had to take each day at a time, and cope with the daily toil of whether it will be a good or bad day with food. This has allowed me to understand the dark side that food can sometimes bring – the physical and emotional triggers and how to navigate around that and bring a practical approach to it.
Nonetheless, I have always been a host and enjoyed what food can bring to life. The power of community, the sense of nourishment and the beauty of creating memories and emotions. My life journey and milestones, from the dark times to the joyous moments of coming out, getting engaged or getting positive results and feedback from clients have also been celebrated with wonderous foods and meals. That's what I want to focus on with food – the sense on celebration it brings, and making food the centrepiece of life.
What inspired you to start sharing nutritional plans and health tips?
It may sound like a cliché but I became inspired because I couldn’t relate to content or the people delivering information out there. As a queer person of colour living with a chronic illness, there are aspects of health and wellness that I want to find relatable. Though my food and health tips may be similar to what many know, I try to deliver it through my voice and medium so that it not only provides an outlet for me, but also for others to look to and feel inspired and educated. The hope is that, over time, I can show how positive nutrition can be to people and companies.
I constantly get inspired by the feedback which drives me to continue doing this on a daily basis, and being able to work with media outlets like the BBC to give regular health tips with a sense of humour and approachability helps me to keep going.
Why do you think the health and well-being of LGBTQ+ people requires more focus and close attention? What challenges and trends are we seeing emerge within the community?
I think it's firstly important to recognise that queer people face some of the same health issues and risks as everyone else, and it's so important to focus on long term health outcomes and reducing the risk and burden of disease overall. There is some literature suggesting that our community may be at an increased of obesity, heart disease and cancer, and that definitely requires the building of more inclusive educational spaces working with queer professionals. What is of critical importance when we consider the queer community is that access to health care, approachability of safe spaces within the health care space, and affordability of treatments and services are specific issues that need to be adressed. Marginalised communities have historically had less investment on interventions to navigate these issues, and so we not only need more money for these health programmes, but people to advocate and rally the change and improvement.
In regards to challenges and trends, there is growing literature showing the disparities and issues our community face in regards substance abuse, physical abuse, bullying. It's a struggle to find support due to low quality care as a result of stigmatisation, poor awareness from health care providers, and insensitivity. And even with all that, the education and awareness around specialised niches like gut health, immune health, skin health are still under-served.
How has your chronic illness and living with IBD affected your own career path? Any tips for individuals struggling to navigate corporate life?
Initially, it was extremely difficult. I spent a lot of my corporate life hiding my illness as I felt it could be perceived as a weakness. I also didn’t want constant sympathy or accommodation to my condition. When I did decide to let my colleagues and teams know about my condition, it was met with mixed response. The stresses of climbing the corporate ladder and leading larger teams eventually caused more issues with my health. Some were empathetic to my issues, whilst some took advantage to undermine my abilities. Either way it made me the leader I wanted to be – authentic, open and approachable. But what I didn't realise at the time was that by coming to terms with my condition, it meant I was realising I wanted to be authentic to my self as well as others. That led me to make a change to my own career aspirations.
For those struggling, I would say prioritise yourself and your health. It is important to be selfish before going on the path of becoming selfless – especially when health is concerned. Secondly, be open in the workplace so that the right allowances can be made for you. At the same time, use the opportunity to educate your workplace about your condition. Thirdly, you can still realise what you dream as long as you practically approach your goals and don’t see your condition as limiting but rather affirming. Don’t ever dare to believe or dream. It is so easy to have imposter syndrome or let yourself feel that you're on the back foot compared to more abled colleagues. That's not the case, and your own hard work and determination will pay off.
As a queer leader of colour living with a disability, taking care of your mental health is vital. How do you create space for yourself?
I have to admit that sometimes I am not great at this, but I recognise that as a human not everything has to be perfect. However, I am incredibly luck that some of my mind space techniques stem from my passion which has now become my business! I create space by cooking and developing recipes, by working out (an intense spin session is so liberating for me), but I also invest in my self reflection by having my own therapist and life coach, making time to socialise with those who add worth and meaning to my life – incredible friends, family and my wonderful fiancé. A hug, a meal, or a chat and laugh with any of those incredible human beings just resets me and gives me the space I need to detach from the pressures of my life.