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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
Read this article in Spanish.
Last medically reviewed on July 7, 2021
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The 5 Best Lifestyle Habits That Will Keep You Feeling Young, Science Says — Eat This Not That – Eat This, Not That
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Our team of licensed nutritionists and dietitians strives to be objective, unbiased, and honest.
We are committed to bringing you researched, expert-driven content to help you make more informed decisions around food, health, and wellness. We know how important making choices about your overall health is, and we strive to provide you with the best information possible.
Some say age is a mindset, but it’s also a lifestyle. The decisions we make each and every day can determine and sway just how much the hands of time hold over us. By getting into the right lifestyle habits, you’re going to look and feel younger, regardless of the decade you were born.
Consider this study, published in the International Journal of Aging Research. Scientists report most modern, older adults feel decades younger on the inside. Similarly, this survey of 2,000 adults, ages 65 and above, reports half of them feel younger than 50 years old.
So, what exactly is their secret? It may have something to do with more seniors than ever exercise on the regular. This poll indicates today’s older adults (ages 50+) spend more time physically active than earlier generations. Moreover, research recently published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research even concludes adults over the age of 65 have been working out more than any other age group during the coronavirus pandemic.
Indeed, if you’re on the lookout for new ways to rejuvenate your mind and body, regular exercise should be the first item on your list. More specifically, resistance training is an incredible ally in the fight against aging. According to Emily Servante, senior CPT at Ultimate Performance, a regular regimen of weight lifting and resistance exercises is key to graceful aging for both men and women.
“Can weight training ‘make you younger?’ The plain answer is no, but it can make you feel a whole lot younger, more mobile, and more energetic. Introducing regular resistance training into your routine can massively improve hormonal and inflammatory issues in older people, which is key in preserving and increasing muscle mass, slowing down sarcopenia (muscle wasting), and increasing fat loss,” Servante explains.
You may be wondering what other lifestyle changes you can adopt to fend off the effects of aging and feel younger. If so, you’re in luck! Read on to learn about the best lifestyle habits that will keep you feeling young, according to science. And for more, check out If You Think This About Yourself, You’ll Live Longer, Says New Study
Sleeping well is essential, but that doesn’t make it any easier to get some shuteye on restless nights. Between work, play, and a 24/7 news cycle, it’s very easy in these modern times to push sleep aside as an afterthought. If you want to look and feel younger, though, proper sleep is non-negotiable.
“Good quality rest allows your body to rest and repair itself — including your skin, for those who want to look younger to match their energy — and is necessary for the health and functioning of every single bodily process. Waking up with youthful energy often rests on how deeply you commit to a healthy sleep routine,” explains CSSC Stephen Light of Nolah Mattress.
It’s also important to mention that it’s possible to get too much sleep. Recent research published in BRAIN reports that habitually sleeping for less than 4.5 hours or over 6.5 hours on a nightly basis is linked with greater cognitive decline among older individuals. So just remember to set an alarm!
As far as how to more easily attain a satisfying night’s rest, Light suggests sculpting a personalized bedtime routine to follow night in and night out. “One of the most important things is building a soothing sleep ritual, which could look like playing light music, having herbal tea, or taking a bath — and try to stick to a consistent bedtime,” he recommends.
Related: Avoid These Sleep Positions for Better Z’s, Say Experts
The power of the mind shouldn’t be underestimated, and fascinating recent research published in The Journals of Gerontology: Series B tells us that simply being pessimistic about growing old can lead to a faster deterioration in both overall health and wellbeing. In other words, if you’re constantly ruminating about how awful growing old is going to be, [you] may very well prove yourself right. “It’s kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy,” says lead study author Dakota Witzel, a doctoral candidate at Oregon State University’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences.
Over 100 Oregon locals between ages 52 and 88 took part in this study. It’s worth noting that subjects with worse self-perceptions of aging were much more vulnerable to stressors, reporting more physical health symptoms on particularly stressful days.
“These things are truly important for our health and well-being, not only long-term, but in our day-to-day life,” Witzel adds. “The likelihood of reporting these physical health symptoms is significantly decreased, on average, when you have better self-perceptions of aging.”
This survey finds the key to a long, happy, youthful life is finding the time for some childlike, carefree activities, no matter your age. What’s more carefree than taking a vacation? When we travel someplace special, we broaden our horizons, let go of long-lingering stress, and make lifelong memories and maybe even new friendships.
“I believe that travel is one of the things that keeps us young. Exploring the world provides us with a sense of wonder and makes us feel young. It helps keep our sense of curiosity young,” states Lee Jason Friend, Holistic Services Coordinator at The Ohana Addiction Treatment Center.
Furthermore, this study released in Tourism Analysis finds people who travel more often are happier in general, and this project released in The Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging concludes travelers tend to live longer in general. Why? Vacations relieve stress, and it’s well-documented that excessive stress levels will accelerate the aging process.
“Don’t think having an otherwise healthy lifestyle will compensate for working too hard and not taking holidays,” says Professor Timo Strandberg of the University of Helsinki, Finland. “Vacations can be a good way to relieve stress.”
Related: Meditating Can Impact Your Immune System In This Incredible Way, New Study Says
We touched on the importance of exercise earlier, but it’s equally as essential to make sure you’re working out your brain, too.
“Your brain ages just like the rest of your body as part of the natural aging process. It shrinks, slows down, and becomes less adaptable to change. Therefore, to stay healthy, it’s critical to stretch your brain as well your heart, legs, and other muscles,” explains Karalyn Cass, a Diabetes Prevention Program (DPP) coach and program coordinator with First Mile Care.
Flexing your neurological muscles doesn’t have to be a chore. This study published in the scientific journal Neurology discovered that keeping your brain active — for example, playing more mentally stimulating activities like board games, card games, and puzzles — goes a long way toward preserving the mind’s gray matter and preventing dementia.
Another research initiative released in The Journals of Gerontology: Series B came to similar conclusions. Study authors report that people who routinely play non-digital games throughout their lives show stronger memory and thinking skills by the time they reach their 70s.
Adult life can be quite hectic. In between navigating the day’s daily chores and obligations, it’s easy to start feeling like your hand is barely on the steering wheel of your own life. Interestingly, this study published in The Journals of Gerontology: Series B reports that when older adults feel totally in control of their lives, they also feel younger.
The next afternoon, you find yourself running around and getting things done for your family or job, take some time and do something just for you. Even if it’s as simple as taking 15 minutes to read some of your book, stretch it out with yoga, or go for a relaxing walk around your favorite local neighborhood.
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