Finding Peace through Health and Wellness
By Dawn Robinette
Photography by Brittany Paul
Wine. Chocolate. Vegetables. They all fit in the world of “The Diplomacy Diet,” Claudia Zapata-Elliott’s new program that helps individuals make peace with their bodies and negotiate their way to better health.
“You hear about the war on obesity and usually the war on our bodies. We’re our harshest critic. It’s about making peace with your body but also negotiating your way to better health. Flexible and positive and, hopefully, empowering.
“So many women, we’re at war with our bodies, with our genes and our closets. Especially as we get older and menopause takes over. If you’re feeling defeated by dieting and feeling weary after your wars with food and weight, this is a kinder, gentler approach to better health. It can be kind, it can be gentle, it can be empowered, and it can feel good and tastes good. All of it.”
“I’m mainly focusing on women making peace with their bodies after all these years. And I feel like I’ve finally come full circle because I originally thought I would be a diplomat.”
Born and raised in Laredo, Zapata-Elliott attended the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. “When I was in DC, I took up running and long-distance running. That always triggers an interest in sports nutrition because you’re trying to fuel for those longer races or those longer runs.”
After graduating from Georgetown, Zapata-Elliott began teaching fitness classes. “And my dad was upset. He said, ‘I can’t believe I paid all that money, and you’re jumping up and down all day,'” she laughs. “But I began to realize that there was such a similarity. Everything we do is basically a negotiation, including how we approach our day and the decisions we make about our health and wellness.
“Why do we make certain choices, and why do we not make others? Sometimes we forget we have a choice.”
Her work with “The Diplomacy Diet” is a combination of her expertise and passions. After receiving her master’s degree in nutrition from the University of Incarnate Word in 2000, Zapata-Elliott became a registered dietitian in 2001. “I was the health and wellness columnist for the [San Antonio] Express News for 12 years. There was some blogging, some public speaking, some TV hosting, but at 50, I’m putting it all together to come full circle with my career.”
She starts each day with a workout—and “just like any other woman, lots of lists, lists, lists.”
“I still struggle with making more time for the things I want to do. If you try and find the time, you’re not going to find it. You have to make the time.
I’m sad when I’m sedentary. I’m not productive when I’m sedentary. Starting the day, making time for myself, whether it’s a walk or a good workout – that’s my me time. It’s an appointment with myself. People think you can skip your workout, but I can’t. I choose not to.
“I look forward to the shower after my workout. There’s something about taking off a big pile of sweaty clothes and throwing them in the hamper and the shower after the workout. It’s when I feel my most accomplished, my most confident, and just ready to take on the day. I really can’t do much until I do that.”
Her dedication to working out started at a young age. “I remember telling someone that I joined my first gym at the age of 14. They said, ‘Wow, that’s a lot of money,” and I thought, ‘Wow, that’s a lot of commitment. That’s a lot of discipline.’ I’ve always been a gym rat, and I just cannot live without fitness. It’s not about changing your body or weight loss or weight maintenance or any of that. It’s about feeling good and maintaining sanity. It makes such a difference in your mood.
“I think it’s definitely the number one anti-aging potion of all. I definitely believe that we all, especially women, need to be lifting weights of some sort, some kind of resistance training, just getting stronger. Maintaining your muscle mass is so key to healthy aging. I try and stay active and mobile.”
She describes her approach as uniquely positive, promoting easy, healthy recipes, fitness tips, and sound wellness advice.
“I have a thing where you don’t count calories. Count colors on your plate. It’s a much easier and friendlier way to think about things.
“People associate healthy eating with iceberg lettuce and a plain chicken breast. There’s so much more to it than that. When you start preparing healthy food in a way that’s delicious, you really enjoy it, and you don’t feel like you’re missing out on absolutely anything.”
“Vegetables make me happy. I love fresh vegetables. When you have fresh food, you don’t need a lot. You don’t need a lot of sauces. You don’t need a lot of fanfare.”
“The dieting thing is exhausting. The Diplomacy Diet is really more about addressing that fight that happens in your head. There are no cleanses or counting calories or cheat days. You eat for health, not weight, and you know that any changes in your body come with time, but it’s also about feeling good. Being at peace with our bodies.”
It’s something she feels passionate about as she ages. “Success is wisdom, and it’s wisdom knowing that you’ve grown as a person. You’re able to distinguish between who and what matters and what’s weighing you down.
“It’s funny that your body starts checking out and declining just when you finally feel like you get it. Maybe that’s meant to be humbling, and humility is good. I think humility is definitely part of that wisdom and achieving that peace. I think success is also about peace, not only with your body but peace about where you are and who you are in your journey. For me, that’s success.”
That success includes recently celebrating her 20th wedding anniversary with husband Sean Elliott, the former San Antonio Spurs player, and current broadcaster. “It feels good. We feel proud, and we feel accomplished. We have friends who have been married 40-something years, so we know there’s a long path, but it feels good to reach this milestone and to know you’re in a great place.”
Together they have three grown children. Their oldest son, Tad, is currently in graduate school at Harvard University; their oldest daughter Jada works in health insurance in Minneapolis; and the youngest, in public relations in San Francisco.
Zapata-Elliott’s family weighs into her focus on health and wellness. “My mom has Alzheimer’s disease, which began around 11 years ago. And that one’s been the most heartbreaking. I continue to struggle with it because I’m still not sure what the lesson was there. I’m figuring that one out. She’s still alive, but she’s been in kind of a vegetative state for the last three years or so. I’ve also seen my dad with heart disease for the last 40 years. It’s just terrifying.”
She also credits family for the seeds of her positive approach. “Sean’s mother, my beautiful late mother-in-law Odiemae told me, ‘Darlin—you know, “darlin'” with a little apostrophe at the end—’Don’t do guilt.’ As someone who spent her formative years in Catholic school, that’s not easy for me. I tend to feel guilty about everything I do. But I definitely think letting go of the guilt is huge. It also applies to eating. So what if you overindulged last night or last weekend or all the years? It’s okay. Every day is a new opportunity: every meal, every moment, a new opportunity to choose health.
“Unless I burned dinner, I don’t see anything as a failure. Mistakes? Yes. I’ve made plenty of mistakes and learn from them. But no failures. I think there’s always a lesson and always an opportunity to grow.
“So no guilt about where you are in your journey and no waiting. We keep waiting for it. ‘When I get to this, then I’ll be happy,’ ‘When I accomplish this or accomplish that or do this, or do that, or get to this size.’ It’s happening right now. Let go of the guilt. It’s so freeing when you do.”
That’s exactly what she’d tell her younger self. “Life’s going to throw you some curveballs, and everything is not going to go according to your plan. And that’s okay.
“Nothing in my life went according to what I thought, according to my plans. But I’m certainly happy about where it’s taken me. And grateful.”