When founder and owner Gloria Tsang started HealthCastle.com in 1997, it was all about helping her dad recover from cancer. She drew from her nutritional expertise and personal experience with the illness to answer the questions she felt needed to be answered.
Over the years HealthCastle has grown to become the largest dietitian-run online network in all of North America. With its extensive online presence, it’s hard to believe it began merely as a hobby – a hobby that would grow into an empire of health and wellness for those seeking the Hows and Whys of nutrition.
Nutri-Savvy’s Lauren O’Connor was honored to have the opportunity to speak with registered dietitian Gloria Tsang just after her return from this year’s Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo (FNCE) in Boston.
Gloria, you’ve been on both sides of the fence – as an interviewer and interviewee, which came first?
Gloria Tsang: Interviewer first. That is how I started HealthCastle.com where I took time to interview dietitians, doctors and other experts – on a daily basis. When HealthCastle became known and I worked more actively in the media, that became part of my job as well. But working as a writer came first.
When you started HealthCastle in 1997, how did you find the time/resources to build a website?
Gloria Tsang: It was entirely a hobby for me. In 1997 my father was diagnosed with cancer. I took a leave of absence. I moved my dad to live with me. He needed someone to take him to the cancer center for radiation. Everyday. Every time I’d drop him off for radiation, I always waited for him to finish treatment in the family waiting area. I met a bunch of other families in the same boat. When I told them I was a dietitian, they had tons of questions to ask me. I took time off work to care for my dad full-time, and I put it all on my website.
Did you have any web-building experience prior?
Gloria Tsang: At the time (back then in 1997), there was nothing called blog or wordpress or google blog. I just asked one of the assistants I worked with how to do a website and they lent me an html book. So I learned coding that way. So that’s how it was started. From 1997 ’til 2005 it was entirely my own hobby. I did it after work.
Because I was one of the earlier adopters on the Internet, my site always came up (when people) were looking up specific terms. So I got lots of questions on other (nutritional) things. Back in the 90’s it was things like “garlic” and “What’s good about salmon?” I guess we just became popular. I started writing articles on these things.
Tsang said she did it for a good seven years when she realized, “I may actually have a business here.”
I imagine your site back then was on a much smaller scale and focused mainly on nutrition for cancer. How has it evolved in terms of how the information is presented?
Gloria Tsang: You are right. In the beginning it was all just about cancer. That’s what I what I dealt with on a daily basis. I tried everything I learned from school (cancer nutrition). But it’s just not the same when you see your own dad lose 10 lbs within 7 days – in the first week of treatment – and you start thinking “ok there are 6 more weeks to go – what do I do?” It really hit me when I was actually living with it. It’s all about NOT losing weight which is kind of different from now… (laughs). Of course now its about how to lose weight. But in the beginning, it (cancer nutrition) was all about how to preserve weight.
When did you become partnered with the USDA? How did you approach them – or did they approach you?
They did ask her for partnership. Tsang says they approached people in the media, people in the field of promoting healthy eating.
Gloria Tsang: They (the USDA) are very good at doing what they are doing and we are very good (at what we do) and so then by partnering up, we help spread the message, because obviously they have more resources than us. They just hadn’t, at the time, reached the right people and we had the audience that they wanted.
How much support (dietitians, contributors) does your website entail? I imagine you’ve had a full-staff for some time now.
Gloria Tsang: I’m a dietitian; I’m not a web-developer. Nor a marketer. I do have people working on marketing and web-development. They design everything. Things I know nothing about, I definitely want to get help on. I’ve learned things myself slowly over 7 years. But if I want to do it in a business way, I have to do it quickly. I’m pretty sure I could learn web design and web development as well but it probably would take me another 7 years (laughs)…I hire people to do what I don’t know anything about. I’m lucky to be able to have a group of people for that; and for the editorial team, I have a group of dietitians that I work very closely with.
Can you tell me about the name you chose – HealthCastle?
Gloria Tsang: ‘HealthCastle’ came about back in 1997. It was just about me wanting my dad to be healthy. I never in a million years thought this would be my full-time work. At the time it was simply that I wanted to share what I’d known and had seen. So I thought back that then it was a pretty good name. It might sound cheesy nowadays. (I saw) a “castle” as a strong foothold and I really wanted my dad to get better. A castle is a strong building, one that you would feel safe inside.
You recently won an award from the AODA (American Overseas Dietetic Association) – Can you tell me a little about this achievement?
Gloria Tsang: Yes. It is an affiliate of ADA. I’m currently based in Vancouver, Canada. Like with ADA there are affiliates like in California (California Dietetic Association). I’m currently away from the states – like other military RDs. The AODA is actually like a state affiliate, but it’s overseas. I served on their board for two years. And I think they wanted to thank my for my service – so they gave me an award.
I work very closely with military RDs because we are in the same affiliate. It is a great affiliate. I’ve gotten a chance to meet with other dietitians who work in the Third World and providing nutrition to people in Africa. Working with military RD’s really opened up my eyes and when I learned about this affiliate, I really wanted to know how it is run and who was inside – so that’s how I decided to get into action on their board.
You have a great voice in terms of presenting your nutritional wisdom and in your writing. Was speaking and writing something you’ve always done as a nutrition professional? Was it something that your HealthCastle inspired?
Gloria Tsang: Obviously I’m not a journalist. Never had any professional training in writing. I think it’s just being who I am. (Knowing) how I’d like to be talked to. I guess while I was in school going through internships and working with numerous dietitians I learned whom I’d like to be more like. There are those people who stick in your mind, and you think ‘I really like how she talks to her patients.’ I had some good mentors I worked with previously who shaped who I am now.
At what point did you decide to add podcast interviews to your site?
Gloria Tsang: The podcast started about 2 years ago. I though maybe there was something new we could do. Audio is easier to try than video; in which is the learning curve would be very steep. I have to be honest; I’m more comfortable to being interviewed than interviewing people. Recording is not something I do very often, I get very nervous. Every time it is a chance for me to learn and do better. Being interviewed is easier for me on radio or TV because I’ve done it more often.
FNCE sounds like it was quite an event. It must have taken a lot out of you.
Gloria Tsang: Totally, especially since I had to speak and set time aside to meet and rehearse with the other panelists. It was almost impossible to enjoy the conference until my session was over. I’m glad it was scheduled on Sunday because I had the whole of Monday to actually enjoy myself and go to other sessions to listen to other people. But I’m happy it is done.
I don’t usually plan to do these types of events. I actually enjoy more of food conferences instead of Nutrition Conferences. I like that is very different – it really challenges what I’m thinking because I feel that I’m very familiar with dietetics and nutrition already. So I always like to go to a conference that’s a little bit different – I want to see what they do and what challenges they have.
For me the biggest benefit (of FNCE) was definitely the networking. My nighttime was more busy than daytime. I’d find myself running around – catching a taxi to go to the next hotel and come back. I got to meet the people. I remember in the opening session I talked to this person beside me and she actually worked for the FDA. I would never have a chance to meet people like that until I actually go to the conference. And you never know whom you will really meet until you actually through yourself out there and talk to whoever comes your way. So I definitely enjoyed going to FNCE.
Any advice for dietitians seeking to get involved in the media?
Gloria Tsang: The more you do the more it becomes comfortable. With every dietitian there’s always the first time they appeared on TV – everyone knows how nervous they were. Just every time it becomes easier.