Where do you find fresh ingredients in a food desert? How does living in a neighborhood whose only restaurant chains are Dominos, KFC and Popeye’s affect one’s holistic health? These are questions the mainstream wellness industry, oriented around wealth and luxury, often neglects to ask. But Annya Santana has built a business on them.
“Wellness is for everyone, but because it’s a luxury it feels so inaccessible,” Ms. Santana, who hails from the Bronx, said. “The question is: How can people who have experienced systemic economic and social oppression feel wellness in their lives?”
For one, it doesn’t always have to be expensive. Some of Ms. Santana’s family members have been vegetarian since the ’80s. “My uncle was always preaching that meat causes cancer, and we would just laugh it off as a conspiracy,” she said. But eight years ago Ms. Santana began to consider how food might be affecting her own body, specifically her skin. “I decided that I would finally stop laughing at my uncle’s theories, do a 10-day juice fast to clear my system,” she said. Afterward, she stopped eating meat altogether.
Her interest in wellness led to her founding Menos Mas, a beauty company that offers six multiuse body and face products with the tagline, “gender-fluid skincare. A wellness lifestyle for the culture.” All of the products are made by hand with locally sourced, organic ingredients, and the company’s marketing speaks visually and directly to African-American and Latinx communities. “First, it’s about putting the faces forward that I recognize,” Ms. Santana said. “My visuals show what’s beautiful to me — to us. Black skin, big lips. It’s who we are, and it’s beautiful.”
Consequently, she has built an online community with wellness enthusiasts of color. People reach out on Instagram and over email to let Ms. Santana know how much her journey resonates with them and to ask questions about exercise, skin care and switching to a plant-based diet.
What she tells them most often is to start simple. “If people learn the basics, they have a foundation to start playing with this lifestyle on their own,” said Ms. Santana.
Go beyond the headlines.
Here, she shares her healthy life tips, no luxury gym membership required.
Make mornings meaningful.
When you wake up in the morning, don’t grab your phone right away. Instead try mindfulness, the practice of paying attention to the present moment. “Open your eyes, give gratitude that you woke up, that you’re breathing and present on this earth. Give thanks for a new day,” said Ms. Santana. Second, always make your bed. Why? “Accomplishing something regularly — even if it’s small — will make you more productive,” she said.
Buy plants. Talk to them.
Wellness starts at home. Clearing out your house is Ms. Santana’s first piece of advice for friends looking for an overall healthier lifestyle. “Make it feel more spacious,” she said. “It’ll give you mental clarity.”
The task typically involves editing down your stuff, but plants are an exception. “I’m Dominican. Plants resonate with people from the islands. It’s a natural comfort for us,” Ms. Santana said. They bring life to a physical space, and the small act of caring for them has big returns. “It changes the whole mood of your home life,” she said. “It’s a one-time purchase that keeps giving.”
Ms. Santana’s plants have names. Bertha and Lucy are her money trees, which are meant to bring good luck. Naming the plants is a ritual that marks the beginning of a symbiotic relationship. “My plants that have died are the ones I’ve just watered and let sit there,” she said. “So I talk to them. It helps them grow.”
Plants are inexpensive, too, if you know where to shop, Ms. Santana said. The Urban Garden Center in East Harlem is her preferred plant store in New York City. “I come here and buy plants at a third of the prices I’d find downtown. And it’s right here in our community,” she said.
Running is one way to connect to your community and neighborhood.
Running is an accessible exercise that can boost self-confidence, Ms. Santana said. “You don’t have money for a gym or a trainer? You can still go outside and run.” And while you’re out there, discoveries will happen. Ms. Santana’s favorite running spot, near the Third Avenue Bridge in the Bronx, connects her neighborhood and Manhattan. “You’ll see so many nooks and crannies as only a person on foot can. And you’ll see how many people are doing cool things in your community.”
When Ms. Santana started running, she could barely make it a block. “To go from that place to finishing races, I gained confidence,” she said. “It made me think I could accomplish other things in my life.” New runners, expect to learn self-assuredness through the physical and mental battle of running. “When you finish running, you’ve gone through wanting to quit and pushing through the pain. You connect to your strength.”
Find your people. Or just one person.
No matter how new you are to a sport, a group or ally will help you start and keep you motivated. Search for local groups online and using Instagram hashtags. Ms. Santana runs with the Adidas Runners in New York and the Paris Running Club when she’s abroad. “The one thing all of us runners have in common: We all had the same fears before we started,” Ms. Santana said. “We all were overwhelmed by the impossibility of it.” So don’t stall. No shopping trips for esoteric (unnecessary) gear or waiting until you can run fast enough. “In a running group there’s a pace for everyone. There’s always someone who will join you, help you finish, encourage you, help you get better,” said Ms. Santana.
“You don’t have to lose your culture”: Healthy-hack your comfort foods.
Ask yourself: What do I eat normally and what is the healthier version of that? “You don’t have to lose your culture. I still eat rice and beans. I just use brown rice now,” said Ms. Santana. Swap white bread for whole wheat. Use nut milks instead of milk. “It’s easy transitions that start people on the path to eating healthy. They can see that it doesn’t have to be hard, bland or expensive,” said Ms. Santana. She recommends White Castle’s Impossible sliders, a meatless alternative, to people newly transitioning from a traditional American diet to a plant-based diet. “It shows being vegan doesn’t have to mean eating flavorless food.”
When she first went vegan, Ms. Santana was always left out of family meals and felt alienated. But eventually, with her help, her brother, and then parents started eating primarily plant-based diets. Instead of the Dominican staple, sancocho, her mother now makes a vegan root vegetable stew for the family. Bell pepper, garlic, sweet peppers, cilantro, celery, and vinegar flavor the base, while the traditional beef is replaced with tubers and root vegetables — kabocha squash, cassava, plantains, yams, and yellow and white eddoe. “It’s hearty and delicious,” said Ms. Santana.
Buy ingredients in bulk, and make food yourself.
Homemade smoothies are most economical. Buy greens and fruit in season and freeze them for days and months to come, says Ms. Santana.That way you can make a new blend every day. “You have to be connected to the foods that make you feel good. Until you make things yourself you won’t know what those foods are,” said Ms. Santana. Try her favorite post-workout green smoothie: banana, green apple, kale or spinach, almond butter, and almond milk. “It’s nutty, not too sweet, and filling,” she said.
If you can’t make it, buy it locally.
If you need to grab-and-go, look for healthy-living shops in your neighborhood, owned by people from your neighborhood. Ms. Santana’s favorite juice bar, Juices for Life, is on a mission to bring healthy food options to neighborhoods that don’t have them. The smoothies are $5 or $6. “If you’re waiting to go downtown to get a smoothie at say, Juice Press, it’s like, ‘O.K., here’s my whole check for the week,’” she said. “Juices for Life is delicious with all the healthy, organic ingredients, but at an accessible price point for my community.”
Your neighborhood may not have a juice bar, but it probably has a bodega that makes fresh juice. And most restaurants have a vegan option. There may not be a Whole Foods with organic options, but you can request the goods you want with your local supermarket manager, suggests Ms. Santana. “Open the lines of communication with your local shops and restaurants,” she said. “If enough people request gluten-free or dairy-free, a larger range of produce, and even kale, they will provide it. Trust me. I’ve done it.”
Be your own guinea pig. Then share what you’ve learned.
Like running, healthy living is best done with a community. But how to convince mom to season her vegetables with meat just occasionally, not regularly? “They saw a plant-based diet changed me from the inside out,” said Ms. Santana.
Ask for 30 days when motivating others.
Ms. Santana set an example and then a proposition: She asked her brother, who had been very overweight, to devote 30 days to healthy living. “I said if in 30 days, your life isn’t better, I’ll leave you alone forever,” she said. They grocery shopped together and ran together. Over time, her brother lost 50 pounds. He started taking control of his life again, she said. “You have to keep pushing the message that wellness is about making adjustments to your life, not losing who you are and what you love.”