Sometimes people view eating well as a necessary evil. It’s necessary for health on the one hand, but it also connotes self-denial and constraint that are deeply rooted in Eurocentrism. Many nutrition programs are based on the American food pyramid, which indicates to the local people what good eating looks like, even in the Caribbean, where I was born.
However, there is no one diet that works for everyone when it comes to nutrition and good eating. Traditional cuisine and meals merit a place at the table as well. I’ll explain why cultural foods are essential to a balanced diet in this essay.
What exactly are cultural foods?
Cultural cuisines, also known as traditional foods, are symbolic of the customs, values, and ways of life of a particular place, ethnic group, religion, or community of people from different cultures.
Cultural ideas regarding specific foods and their preparation or use may be present. They might also represent the collective culture of a group.
These foods and traditions are handed down from one generation to the next. Regional meals like pizza, pasta, and tomato sauce from Italy or kimchi, seaweed, and dim sum from Asia might be considered cultural foods. As an alternative, they can be a throwback to colonial times, like the Caribbean’s blend of East Indian and West African culinary customs.
Cultural cuisines are frequently at the heart of our identities and familial bonds, and they may be a part of religious ceremonies. Cultural foods are part of a healthy diet, however this message isn’t widely spread and is frequently ignored.
One of the benchmarks for nutritional advice in the West is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Meeting people where they are, including their traditional foodways, is advised (1Trusted Source).
The Canadian Food Guide also highlights how important cultural and culinary customs are to a balanced diet (2).
To ensure cultural competency, which is the effective and appropriate treatment of people without bias, prejudice, or stereotypes, the discipline of dietetics still has a lot of work to do (3).
Cultural needs and eating customs were addressed during my dietetics course, but there was no enthusiasm or real-world application. There were occasionally limited institutional resources available to healthcare workers.
What does eating well actually entail?
Consuming a mix of nutrients from dairy, protein-rich meals, grains, fruits, and vegetables — or what are known as the “five food groups” in the United States — is loosely referred to as healthy eating.
The key takeaway is that every food category offers vital vitamins and minerals that support healthy health. A healthy plate, according to the USDA’s MyPlate, which replaced the food pyramid, is composed of half nonstarchy vegetables, one-quarter protein, and one-quarter grains (4).
But the six food groups — staples (starchy, carb-rich meals), foods from animals, legumes, fruits, vegetables, and fats or oils — are all represented in the Caribbean (5).
Sometimes it’s difficult to accurately portion traditional one-pot meals onto a plate. Instead, all the different food groups are blended into one meal.
If you Google “healthy eating,” for instance, you’ll get a frenzy of lists and pictures of asparagus, blueberries, and Atlantic salmon, frequently in the arms or on tables of white families.
Unspoken message that local and traditional meals could be unhealthy is conveyed by the lack of ethnically diverse pictures or portrayal of different cultures.
True health eating, however, is a flexible idea that does not require any particular appearance, ethnicity, or inclusion of particular foods to be considered healthy.
The following foods, along with their traditional culinary analogues, are ones you’ll frequently encounter on health websites in the West:
- In addition to spinach and dasheen bush (taro leaves), kale is a nutrient-dense food.
- Rice and beans are also great sources of protein and nutritional fiber, in addition to quinoa.
- Although chicken breast is praised for being low in fat and a staple of a healthy diet, other chicken parts are also low in fat and higher in iron if the skin is removed.
- Omega-3 fatty acids are abundant in Atlantic salmon as well as other fatty fish like sardines and regional salmon variations.
- Your diet isn’t necessarily terrible if kale, quinoa, and Atlantic salmon aren’t readily available in your area. Contrary to popular belief, traditional foods are neither inferior or nutritionally unsound, and a balanced diet is not confined to foods from Europe.
Based on access to food, environmental sustainability, and local food traditions, healthy eating looks different in different communities and places.
The function of ethnic meals in our life
Traditional food preparation methods and cultural meals offer a strong connection to the community and medical treatment. They help us make memories for the future, connect us to our past, and encourage social interaction today. Additionally, they are crucial for diet effectiveness and adherence.
I connect with the ancient food traditions brought from West Africa when my mother shows me how to make oil down, a one-pot dish made of breadfruit, taro leaves, pumpkin, coconut milk, and smoked bones. At the same time, I enjoy family time.
Similar to this, every time I make a vegetarian curry meal like dhal (split peas) with turmeric or saffron, I feel a connection to the culinary traditions of East India.
These dishes may not appear like the Western conception of wholesome or healthy food to those who are unfamiliar with them, yet they are packed with veggies, complex carbohydrates, and fiber.
What role does culture have in how you eat?
Your culture has an impact on the foods you eat, your spiritual and religious beliefs, and how you see health, healing, and healthcare (7Trusted Source).
According to research, cultural background has a significant impact on everything from your desire to try new cuisines to your opinions about certain foods. Furthermore, your culture influences how you define what constitutes food and what doesn’t (8Trusted Source, 9).
Therefore, it is important to analyze and comprehend healthy eating in the context of culture.
For instance, in the US, dinner is probably the largest meal of the day, with lunch typically consisting of a light salad or sandwich. But in the Caribbean, dinner is typically lighter and very similar to breakfast, whereas noon is frequently the heaviest meal.
Weakening the science and depriving communities of enlightening culinary perspectives and experiences happens when nutrition messages and advice lack openness, diversity, and empathy.
Furthermore, a dietitian’s lack of trust and communication with the population they are working with may lead to health inequalities and unfavorable outcomes (3).
You’re less likely to follow your dietitian’s advice if you don’t trust them.
It’s important to keep in mind that cultural cuisines can be considered nutritious even if they aren’t gentrified, widely consumed on social media, or conform to the Western paradigm.
Many immigrant and non-immigrant families in the United States rely on these comfort foods, lifestyles, and significant nutritional sources.
These cultural foods, which combine numerous food groups and provide a range of nutrients, serve as examples of good eating:
- A mainstay of Tanzanian cuisine consisting of maize and frequently paired with regional meat and vegetable dishes is ugali.
- Ema datshi is a traditional spicy stew served with yak cheese in Bhutan that may also contain mushrooms, green beans, and potatoes.
- Hawaiian cuisine staple kalua pork is typically served with grilled fish, eggplant, or taro.
- Schäufele: German beer-baste roasted pork is frequently served with potato dumplings, sauerkraut, or creamed savoy cabbage.
- Pelau is a well-liked Caribbean one-pot meal made with roasted chicken, parboiled rice, pigeon peas, a variety of vegetables, and fresh herbs.