Graduate story

How a bout of food poisoning inspired Valentina Cartago to use food to improve her health, and how she achieves a work-life balance as a nutritional therapist

What drew you to nutrition?

“Being Italian, I grew up with a love for fresh, homemade food. However I had been very spoilt because it was always my mom or my grandmas doing the cooking. Believe it or not, I didn’t learn how to cook until I moved to London by myself.

 “The choice to actually study nutrition happened after myself and my then boyfriend had a pretty bad case of food poisoning. He was fine the following day and eating pizza, whereas it took me much longer to be able to eat normally again. I started to become fascinated by how different people responded to illness and how I could use food to improve my health.

 “Until then I had been an actress for 20 years, which I loved, but I wanted to do something that taught me something new and would allow me to give back, supporting the health of other people and my loved ones.

 “I did my foundation year at BCNH, then a friend mentioned ION so I attended an open day and loved their tutors, their energy and the programme. I knew I was in the right place for me.”

How did your career take shape after graduating?

“Two things really helped me in the beginning. Winning a bursary with Cytoplan allowed me to have an amazing team create the website for my own practice and provide me with all necessary marketing materials and support.

“At the same time, I did the Cytoplan Action Against Alzheimer's course and became one of their licensed practitioners, delivering health talks and courses on decreasing cognitive decline risk. I lost one of my grandmothers to Alzheimer's and I have another one going through vascular dementia at the moment, so cognitive health is very close to my heart.

“I landed a job as head nutritionist in a private wellness clinic in central London. Here I worked harder than I ever have in my life alongside functional medicine doctors, learning about biohacking and clinical procedures, managing a team, and dealing with a type of client I had not experienced before; including royals, actors and athletes.

“In two years I grew a lot as a person and as a practitioner and I will always be grateful for the knowledge this experience brought me.

“However I also learnt the biggest lesson of all: the importance of a work-life balance to protect your own physical and mental health. I pushed myself too hard all the time and found it hard to say no when asked to do more, which led me to three different hospital admissions. During the last one, they thought I was having a stroke because it was difficult for me to talk and think clearly. It turned out to be a combination of extreme stress, poor sleep and nutrition. The truth is, if you do not support your own health you will not be able to support your clients. No matter how great a job is, it is never worth ruining your health.

“I quit the job and took a couple of months to recover. Now I work four days a week as a nutrition advisor for Protexin, and on Fridays and Saturdays I see clients or deliver talks on different health topics. I have written a few articles for magazines and online platforms but most importantly, I have found a happy work-life balance which has helped my mental health immensely.” 

Describe a typical week for you

“If I am working for Protexin, I will start my day with a few calls to check on my accounts and plan any potential educational training they may need. Sometimes I will support the marketing department by writing articles for the press. It's a really varied job which I love.

“On Fridays, I will see my own clients or deliver talks. If not, I am usually prepping a new talk or working on supporting material for clients in between their sessions. 

“No matter what, every single day I will start with some time for myself to exercise, breathe or meditate, in addition to taking two walks in the park.”

How has nutritional therapy helped your, your family’s and your friends’ health and lifestyle?

“It's empowering knowing how to combine foods, targeted supplements and lifestyle in order to support my own body. I love that by now, most of my family and friends have picked up many useful tips on how to optimise their health.”

What is the best thing about your job?

“Hearing a client say they have not felt this good in a long time and seeing the smile on their face. Knowing I have made someone's life more enjoyable is truly priceless.”

What advice would you give to others considering nutritional therapy?

“Know that the course will be very challenging but incredibly interesting and exciting. Work hard but make sure to always have some time for yourself each day to rest and recharge. Finally, make friends as soon as you can when you start; we had a good group and kept each other motivated during the hardest times. They are still some of my closest friends.”

Visit Valentina's website

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