Healthy eating is sometimes seen as a necessary evil.
On the one hand it is important for good health, on the other hand it indicates limitation and self-denial imbued with Eurocentrism.
Even in the Caribbean, where I’m from, many nutrition programs are modeled on the American food pyramid, which then implies what healthy eating looks like for the local population.
However, nutrition and a healthy diet are not a single diet recipe. Traditional dishes and eating culture also deserve a place at the table.
In this article I explain why cultural foods are an essential part of a healthy diet.
Cultural foods – also called traditional dishes – represent the traditions, beliefs and practices of a geographic region, ethnic group, religious body or intercultural community.
Cultural foods can include beliefs about how certain foods are prepared or used. They can also symbolize the overall culture of a group.
These dishes and customs are passed on from generation to generation.
Cultural foods can represent a region, such as pizza, pasta and tomato sauce from Italy or kimchi, seaweed and dim sum from Asia. Alternatively, they can represent a colonial past, such as the amalgamation of West African and East Indian food traditions across the Caribbean.
Cultural foods can play a role in religious celebrations and are often the core of our identity and family connections.
Healthy eating includes cultural foods – but this message is not prominent and is often not applied.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) nutritional guidelines for Americans are one of the gold standards for nutritional guidelines in the West. It recommends meeting people where they are – including their cultural foods (1).
The Canadian Food Guide also emphasizes the importance of culture and nutritional traditions for healthy eating (2).
However, there is still a lot to be done in the field of dietetics to ensure cultural competence, i.e. effective and appropriate interaction with people without prejudices, prejudices or stereotypes (3).
During my nutritionist training, cultural needs and nutritional practices were recognized, but interest and practical application were limited. In some cases there were few institutional resources for healthcare professionals.
What does a healthy diet really look like?
Healthy eating is broadly defined as consuming a variety of nutrients from dairy products, protein foods, grains, fruits, and vegetables – what are known in the United States as the five food groups.
The main message is that each food group provides essential vitamins and minerals that are needed to support good health. The USDA’s MyPlate, which replaced the food pyramid, shows that a healthy plate consists of half starch-free vegetables, one quarter protein, and one quarter grains (4).
However, the Caribbean is a melting pot of six food groups – staple foods (starchy, high-carbohydrate foods), animal-based foods, legumes, fruits, vegetables, and fats or oils (5).
Traditional stews cannot always be clearly portioned on a plate. Rather, the food groups are combined into a single dish.
For example, the traditional stew called Oil Down is made from breadfruit (the staple food – a starchy fruit that has a similar texture to bread when cooked), non-starchy vegetables like spinach and carrots, and meats like chicken, fish, or pork.
Dietary guidelines show that cultural foods go hand in hand with healthy eating. However, improved cultural literacy and institutional resources are needed to facilitate the practical application of these guidelines.
Your desire to eat certain foods is often the result of targeted and successful food marketing. This marketing usually comes through a Eurocentric lens that lacks cultural nuances (6).
Googling “healthy eating”, for example, reveals a flood of lists and pictures of asparagus, blueberries and Atlantic salmon – often in the arms or on the tables of a white family.
The lack of cultural representation or ethnically diverse illustrations sends an unspoken message that local and cultural foods can be unhealthy.
However, true healthy eating is a fluid concept that doesn’t have a specific look or ethnicity, and doesn’t need to include specific foods to count.
Here are foods you often see on health websites in the west, as well as some traditional foods counterparts:
- While kale is a nutritious vegetable, so are dasheen bush (taro leaves) and spinach.
- Quinoa is an excellent source of protein and fiber, but so are rice and beans.
- Chicken breasts are low in fat and hailed as a must for a healthy diet, but when you remove the skin from other parts of the chicken, those pieces are also low in fat – and high in iron.
- Atlantic salmon is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, but so are local types of salmon and other fatty fish such as sardines.
If kale, quinoa, and Atlantic salmon are not available in your area, your diet is not necessarily bad. Contrary to popular health and wellness messages, a healthy plate is not limited to Eurocentric foods, and traditional foods are not inferior or nutritionally unsuitable.
Healthy eating looks different depending on the community and location, depending on food access, sustainability and eating culture.
Healthy eating is a fluid concept that looks different depending on the region and cultural background. Its messages need to be diversified.
Cultural foods and traditional dietary practices provide a deep connection to the community and health care. They connect us to our past, promote socialization in the present and create memories for the future. They also play an important role in diet compliance and success.
When my mother teaches me how to make Oil Down – a stew made from breadfruit, taro leaves, pumpkin, coconut milk and smoked bones – I connect with the traditional food traditions of West Africa and share moments with my family.
Likewise, every time I prepare a vegetarian curry dish like dhal (split peas) with turmeric or saffron, I associate myself with the eating traditions of East India.
To people who are unfamiliar with them, these dishes may not seem like the Western image of nutritious or healthy food – but they are full of fiber, complex carbohydrates, and vegetables.
How does culture affect what you eat?
Culture influences the foods you eat, your religious and spiritual practices, and your perspective on wellness, healing, and health care (7).
Research has found that even your thoughts about certain foods and your willingness to try new ones are largely influenced by your cultural background. In addition, your classification of what is and is not a food is related to your culture (8, 9).
Healthy eating must therefore be interpreted and understood in the context of culture.
For example, in the United States, dinner is likely the main meal of the day while lunch is a light salad or sandwich. In the Caribbean, however, lunch is often the heaviest meal, while dinner is lighter and, in most cases, is remarkably similar to breakfast.
When nutritional messages and advice lack inclusivity, diversity, and understanding, we water down science and deprive communities of enriching culinary perspectives and experiences.
In addition, a breakdown in trust and communication between a nutritionist and those they care for can lead to health inequalities and poor health outcomes (3).
If you don’t trust your nutritionist, you are less likely to take their advice.
Cultural foods fulfill vital social roles and are an essential part of the health of communities and their individuals. Understanding dietary cultural differences is important to successful nutritional counseling and strong health outcomes.
We need to remember that cultural foods conform to the concept of healthy eating, even if they are not gentrified, popularized on social media, or adapted to the Western paradigm.
These are comfort foods, ways of life, and important sources of nutrition for many immigrant and non-immigrant families in the United States.
These cultural foods illustrate healthy eating by combining multiple food groups and containing a variety of nutrients:
- Behavior: a main course in Tanzania made with cornmeal and often served with traditional meat and vegetable dishes
- Ema-Datshi: a spicy stew, popular in Bhutan, served with yak cheese and may include mushrooms, green beans, and potatoes
- Kalua pork: a traditional Hawaiian dish that can be served with grilled fish, eggplant, or taro
- Schäufele: Roasted pork with German beer, which is often served with potato dumplings and sauerkraut or cream sausage
- Pelau: a popular stew in the Caribbean made with caramelized chicken, parboiled rice, pigeon peas, and an array of vegetables and green spices
Cultural foods are consistent with healthy eating habits. Many of these dishes contain a wide variety of food groups and nutrients in a single meal.
Healthy eating is simply the consumption of several nutrient-rich food groups to support good health.
In contrast to the usual health and wellness messages, healthy eating looks different in the communities and regions. It doesn’t have a specific look or require specific foods.
While American and Canadian dietary guidelines recommend including cultural foods as part of a healthy diet, there is often a lack of the competence and inclusion to emphasize the importance of cultural foods.