Reasons Why Cultural Foods Are Needed in a Healthy Diet

Healthy eating may be seen as a necessary evil at times.

On the one hand, it’s necessary for optimum health, but it also conjures up images of limitation and self-denial associated with Eurocentrism.

Even in the Caribbean, where I grew up, many nutrition programs are based on the American food pyramid, which then suggests to local populations what good eating looks like.

However, there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all dietary prescription when it comes to nutrition and good eating. Traditional foods and culinary culture are also deserving of a place at the table.

I’ll explain why cultural foods are important for a healthy diet in this article.

What is meant by cultural foods?

Cultural Food

Traditions, beliefs, and practices of a geographic area, ethnic group, religious organization, or cross-cultural community are represented through cultural cuisine, also known as traditional dishes.

Beliefs regarding how particular meals are cooked or used may be a part of cultural foods. They may also represent the general culture of a group.

These recipes and traditions have been handed down through the generations.

Pizza, pasta, and tomato sauce from Italy, or kimchi, seaweed, and dim sum from Asia, are examples of cultural cuisine that reflect an area.

Alternatively, they may allude to colonial histories, such as the Caribbean’s mix of West African and East Indian culinary traditions.

Cultural cuisines are frequently at the heart of our identities and family relationships, and they may play a role in religious festivals.

Cultural foods must be completely incorporated into the Western framework.

Cultural foods are part of a healthy diet, but the message isn’t always clear, and it’s frequently ignored.

Dietary Recommendations for Americans from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is one of the gold standards for nutrition guidelines in the West. Meeting people where they are, including their traditional foodways, is encouraged.

In addition to healthy eating, the Canadian Culinary Guide stresses the significance of culture and food traditions.

However, there is still much work to be done in the area of dietetics to guarantee cultural competency, which is defined as the effective and appropriate treatment of individuals without bias, prejudice, or preconceptions.

Cultural requirements and dietary habits were recognized throughout my dietitian training, but there was little enthusiasm or practical implementation. In other cases, healthcare practitioners have limited access to institutional resources.

What does it mean to eat healthily?

Cultural Food

Healthy eating is informally described as getting a range of nutrients from dairy, protein foods, grains, fruits, and vegetables, or the five food categories as they’re called in the United States.

The primary message is that each food category contains vitamins and minerals that are necessary for optimum health. A healthy plate includes half nonstarchy vegetables, one-quarter protein, and one-quarter grains, according to the USDA’s MyPlate, which replaced the food pyramid.

The Caribbean, on the other hand, is a mash-up of six food groups: 

  • Staples (starchy, carb-rich meals).

  • Animal foods.

  • Legumes.

  • Fruits.

  • Vegetables.

  • Fats or oils.

Traditional one-pot meals aren’t always easy to divide out on a platter. Instead, all of the food categories are integrated into one meal.

Breadfruit (the mainstay — a starchy fruit with a texture akin to bread once cooked), nonstarchy vegetables like spinach and carrots, and meats like chicken, fish, or pig are all used in the classic one-pot meal known as oil down.

Healthy eating is a lot more flexible than you would think based on the internet.

Food marketing that is focused and effective is frequently the cause of your urge to consume specific meals. The majority of this marketing is done through a Eurocentric perspective that ignores cultural subtlety.

For example, if you Google “healthy eating,” you’ll get a slew of lists and pictures of asparagus, blueberries, and Atlantic salmon, all of which are often seen in the arms or on the tables of white families.

The absence of ethnically varied images and cultural representation conveys an implicit message that local and traditional cuisine may be harmful.

True healthy eating, on the other hand, is a flexible notion that has no defined appearance or ethnicity and does not need the inclusion of particular foods to be counted.

Here are some meals you’ll find on health websites in the West, as well as their traditional counterparts:

  • Callaloo (taro leaves) and spinach, like kale, are healthy vegetables.
  • Quinoa, like rice and beans, is a good source of protein and dietary fiber.
  • Chicken breasts are low in fat and praised as a must-have for a healthy diet, but removing the skin from other sections of the chicken reduces fat content while increasing iron content.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids are abundant in Atlantic salmon, as well as local salmon variants and other fatty fish like sardines.

If kale, quinoa, and Atlantic salmon aren’t accessible in your area, it doesn’t mean your diet is bad. 

Contrary to popular belief, a healthy plate does not have to consist of Eurocentric meals, and indigenous cuisine is neither inferior nor nutritionally unsuitable.

Based on food availability, sustainability, and food cultures, healthy eating looks different in various communities and places.

The significance of ethnic cuisines in our daily life

Traditional eating habits and cultural cuisines have a strong link to community and health. They help us connect to our history, promote present-day socializing, and build memories for the future. They also play an important role in dietary success and compliance.

When my mother shows me how to make oil down, a one-pot meal made with breadfruit, taro leaves, pumpkin, coconut milk, and smoked bones, I’m reconnecting with traditional West African culinary customs while also sharing family moments.

Similarly, whenever I make a vegetarian curry meal like dhal (split peas) with turmeric or saffron, I am reminded of East Indian culinary traditions.

These meals may not seem to match the Western idea of nutritious or healthy cuisine to those unfamiliar with them, yet they’re packed with fiber, complex carbohydrates, and veggies.

What role does culture have in what you eat?

Cultural Food

The foods you consume, your religious and spiritual activities, and your outlook on wellness, healing, and healthcare are all influenced by culture.

According to research, your cultural background has a significant impact on your attitudes about particular meals as well as your desire to try new ones. Furthermore, your definition of what constitutes food and what does not is influenced by your society.

As a result, healthy eating must be perceived and understood in a cultural context.

In the United States, for example, supper is likely to be the major meal of the day, whereas lunch is likely to be a light salad or sandwich. In the Caribbean, however, lunch is often the heaviest meal, while supper is typically lighter and resembles breakfast.

We dilute the research and deprive communities of valuable culinary views and experiences when nutrition messaging and advice lack inclusiveness, diversity, and understanding.

Furthermore, a dietitian’s lack of trust and communication with the individuals he or she is serving may lead to health inequalities and poor results.

You’re less likely to follow your dietitian’s advice if you don’t trust them.

So, what’s next?

Even if they aren’t gentrified, promoted on social media, or aligned with the Western worldview, cultural cuisines match the idea of healthy eating.

For many immigrant and non-immigrant families in the United States, these are comfort foods, ways of life, and essential sources of nourishment.

By integrating multiple dietary categories and containing a range of nutrients, these ethnic dishes demonstrate healthy eating:

Ugali is a typical Tanzanian cornmeal dish that is often served with traditional meat and vegetable dishes.

Ema datshi: a spicy stew served with yak cheese and mushrooms, green beans, and potatoes that is popular in Bhutan.

Kalua pork is a classic Hawaiian meal that may be served with grilled fish, eggplant, or taro, among other things.

Schäufele is a roasted pork dish with potato dumplings and sauerkraut or creamed savoy cabbage that is typically served with sauerkraut or creamed savoy cabbage.

Pelau is a Caribbean one-pot meal prepared with caramelized chicken, parboiled rice, pigeon peas, and a variety of vegetables and herbs.

Last but not least

To promote excellent health, healthy eating simply means consuming a variety of nutrient-dense foods.

Healthy eating looks different in various groups and locations, contrary to popular health and wellness messaging. It doesn’t have a distinct appearance or needs the use of certain meals.

Although the American and Canadian dietary food standards promote the inclusion of ethnic foods as part of a balanced diet, nutrition messaging and counseling often lack the competency and inclusiveness necessary to emphasize the significance of cultural foods.