Healthy eating is sometimes seen as a necessary evil.
On one hand, it’s essential to good health, but on the other, it’s suggestive of restriction and self-denial steeped in 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 to the local communities.
However, nutrition and healthy eating are not a one-size-fits-all dietary prescription. Traditional meals and food culture deserve a seat at the table too.
In this article, I’ll explain why cultural foods are integral to healthy eating.
Cultural foods — also called traditional dishes — represent the traditions, beliefs, and practices of a geographic region, ethnic group, religious body, or cross-cultural community.
Cultural foods may involve beliefs about how certain foods are prepared or used. They may also symbolize a group’s overall culture.
These dishes and customs are passed down from generation to generation.
Cultural foods may represent a region, such as pizza, pasta, and tomato sauce from Italy or kimchi, seaweed, and dim sum from Asia. Alternatively, they may represent a colonial past, such as the fusion of West African and East Indian food traditions throughout the Caribbean.
Cultural foods may play a part in religious celebrations and are often at the core of our identities and familial connections.
Healthy eating includes cultural foods — but that message isn’t prominent and often goes unapplied.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Dietary Guidelines for Americans is one of the gold standards for nutrition guidelines in the West. It recommends meeting people where they are — including their cultural foodways (1).
The Canadian Food Guide also emphasizes the importance of culture and food traditions to healthy eating (2).
However, the field of dietetics still has a lot of work to do to ensure cultural competence, which is the effective and appropriate treatment of people without bias, prejudice, or stereotypes (3).
During my training to become a dietitian, cultural needs and food practices were acknowledged, but there was limited interest or practical application. In some instances, there were few institutional resources for healthcare professionals.
What does healthy eating really look like?
Healthy eating is loosely defined as the consumption of a variety of nutrients from dairy, protein foods, grains, fruits, and vegetables — what’s known in the United States as the five food groups.
The main message is that each food group provides essential vitamins and minerals needed to support good health. The USDA’s MyPlate, which replaced the food pyramid, illustrates that a healthy plate is half nonstarchy vegetables, one-quarter protein, and one-quarter grains (4).
However, the Caribbean is a melting pot of six food groups — staples (starchy, carb-rich foods), foods from animals, legumes, fruits, vegetables, and fats or oils (5).
Traditional one-pot dishes can’t always be distinctly portioned on a plate. Rather, the food groups are combined into a single dish.
For example, the traditional one-pot dish called oil down is made with breadfruit (the staple — a starchy fruit that has a texture similar to bread once cooked), nonstarchy veggies like spinach and carrots, and meats like chicken, fish, or pork.
Dietary guidelines demonstrate that cultural foods go hand in hand with healthy eating. However, improved cultural competence 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 nuance (6).
For instance, Googling “healthy eating” reveals a flurry of lists and images 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 may be unhealthy.
Yet, true healthy eating is a fluid concept that neither has a specific look or ethnicity nor needs to include specific foods to count.
Here are foods you’ll commonly see on health websites in the West, plus some traditional-food counterparts:
- While kale is a nutritious vegetable, so too are dasheen bush (taro leaves) and spinach.
- Quinoa is an excellent source of protein and dietary fiber, but rice and beans are too.
- Chicken breast is low in fat and lauded as a must-have for a healthy diet, but if you remove the skin from other parts of the chicken, those pieces are low in fat too — and higher in iron.
- Atlantic salmon is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, but so too are local salmon varieties and other fatty fish such as sardines.
If kale, quinoa, and Atlantic salmon aren’t available in your region, your diet isn’t automatically poor. Contrary to mainstream health and wellness messages, a healthy plate isn’t limited to Eurocentric foods, and traditional foods aren’t inferior or nutritionally unfit.
Healthy eating looks different across communities and locations based on food access, sustainability, and food cultures.
Healthy eating is a fluid concept that looks different based on your region and cultural background. Its messaging needs to be diversified.
Cultural foods and traditional food practices provide a deep connection to community and healthcare. They connect us to our past, foster socialization in the present, and create memories for the future. Plus, they play a major role in dietary compliance and success.
When my mother teaches me how to prepare oil down — a one-pot dish of breadfruit, taro leaves, pumpkin, coconut milk, and smoked bones — I am simultaneously connecting with the ancestral food traditions brought from West Africa and having shared family moments.
Similarly, I connect to the food traditions of East India every time I prepare a vegetarian curry dish, such as dhal (split peas) with turmeric or saffron.
To people who aren’t familiar with them, these dishes may not seem to fit the Western image of nutritious or healthy food — but they’re filled with fiber, complex carbs, 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 healthcare (7).
Research suggests that even your thoughts about certain foods and your willingness to try new ones are largely influenced by your cultural background. Moreover, your classification of what’s regarded as food, and what isn’t, is linked to your culture (8, 9).
Therefore, healthy eating must be interpreted and understood within 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. However, in the Caribbean, lunch is often the heaviest meal, whereas dinner is lighter and, more often than not, remarkably like breakfast.
When nutrition messages and counseling lack inclusivity, diversity, and understanding, we water down the science and rob communities of enriching culinary perspectives and experiences.
Furthermore, a breakdown in trust and communication between a dietitian and the people they’re serving may result in health disparities and poor health outcomes (3).
If you don’t trust your dietitian, you’re less likely to comply with their counsel.
Cultural foods fulfill vital social roles and are integral to the health of communities and the individuals within them. Understanding cultural food differences is important for successful nutrition counseling and strong health outcomes.
We must remember that cultural foods fit the concept of healthy eating even if they aren’t gentrified, popularized on social media, or aligned with 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 exemplify healthy eating by combining several food groups and including a variety of nutrients:
- Ugali: a staple dish in Tanzania made with cornmeal and often served with traditional meat and vegetable dishes
- Ema datshi: a spicy stew, popular in Bhutan, that’s served with yak cheese and may include mushrooms, green beans, and potatoes
- Kalua pork: a traditional Hawaiian dish that may be served with grilled fish, eggplant, or taro
- Schäufele: roasted pork basted with German beer that’s often served with potato dumplings and sauerkraut or creamed savoy cabbage
- Pelau: a popular one-pot dish in the Caribbean made with caramelized chicken, parboiled rice, pigeon peas, and an array of vegetables and green seasonings
Cultural foods align with a healthy eating pattern. Many such dishes include a variety of food groups and nutrients in a single meal.
Healthy eating is simply the consumption of multiple nutrient-rich food groups to support good health.
Contrary to mainstream health and wellness messages, healthy eating looks different across communities and regions. It doesn’t have a specific look or require particular foods.
Although the American and Canadian dietary food guidelines encourage including cultural foods as a part of healthy eating, nutrition messages and counseling often lack the competence and inclusivity to reinforce the importance of cultural foods.