Google the term “examples of healthy recipes” and you’ll notice there’s very little variety in what healthy eating looks like.
When healthy eating is presented through a Eurocentric lens the implication is that other cultures’ foods are not as healthy.
What you see online reflects popular attitudes about healthy eating—lots of kale, green smoothies, and quinoa.
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.
What are cultural foods?
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 also represent a region, such as pizza, pasta, and tomato sauce from Italy or kimchi, seaweed, and dim sum from Asia.
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.
What does healthy eating actually 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.
Yet, true healthy eating is a fluid concept that neither has a specific look or ethnicity nor needs to include specific foods to count.
Healthy eating looks different across communities and locations based on food access, sustainability, and food cultures.
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.
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.
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 other parts of the world like the Caribbean, lunch is often the heaviest meal. Whereas dinner is lighter and, more often than not, remarkably like breakfast.
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. It is served with yak cheese and may include mushrooms, green beans, and potatoes
- 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
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!