Diet culture has painted a toxic picture that “ethnic” cuisines are “unhealthy.” The fact is, eating a diet that honors one’s cultural background and experience IS nourishment.
No matter your cultural or ethnic background, food can be a way of connecting with not only ourselves, but our families, cultures, and traditions. And while many of us are interested in improving overall health and wellness, I have witnessed conversations suggesting swapping brown rice for white rice, avoiding fried foods, and the idea that chicken breast is the “healthiest” protein source.
The sad part is… what many consider delicious home-cooked food is often not part of this conversation.
It leaves people of diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds – me included – questioning how their childhood staples fit into a Western/Americanized idea of healthy food.
Here are a few tips and insights to help navigate this world of diet culture and the standard American diet while honoring the foods that give a sense of home and connection.
1. It’s not one size fits all with our diets and our bodies.
Standards, standards, and more standards… enough is enough! The standard American diet, societal standards of beauty, and many other socially accepted standards do not work for everyone.
I repeat – THEY DO NOT WORK FOR EVERYONE!
What we eat, how we look, and what makes us feel good is about as individual as it gets. The standard American diet is not everyone’s standard. The idea of “good foods vs. bad foods” leaves many of us feeling lost.
Where do rice and beans or plantains fit into a model of health? A one size fits all approach to health and wellness…
That ain’t it, honey.
2. Honor your roots!
No matter your cultural or ethnic background, food can be a way of connecting with ourselves, our families, cultures, and traditions.
Recipes are often passed down through generations, inspiring a sense of connection with those that came before us and are still showing love and nurturing through the foods we eat.
My mother is of Dominican descent, and my father is African American. The foods we grew up eating tasted the best when we ate them together; my Bigmama’s fried green tomatoes, my Aunt Jo’s cornbread, my mom’s mangú for breakfast on the weekends, even my Uncle Pete’s fresh-caught crabs that we’d boil in beer and sit outside on hot summer days in Hampton, VA, are examples of some of my favorites!
All these foods shaped my childhood, my relationships with my family, and my blended culture.
Not eating these foods just to fit into a standard diet and expectation…
That ain’t it, honey.
3. Non-inclusive and cultural incompetence in nutrition.
A friend of mine (we’ll call her Meg for privacy) recently enrolled in a nutrition program with a well-known fitness guru on social media. With the utmost respect and support for her choice to enroll in the program (and as a soon-to-be registered dietitian), I was curious to see her meal plan. As I read down the minimal list of food choices, I couldn’t help but think, “How the heck can a person who grew up eating traditional ethnic dishes like arroz con pollo, adhere to such a strict, non-inclusive diet plan?”
I did NOT share this sentiment with Meg, as she was dedicated and optimistic about the program.
One day, Meg exhaustedly said, “Tay, I’ve never eaten so much baked chicken breast and bland oats in my entire life. How TF can someone keep this up long term?!”
I replied, “I don’t know, girl, but I got the Sazón whenever you’re ready!”
It’s safe to say this program didn’t consider the cultural backgrounds of any participants.
That ain’t it, honey.
4. Your Cultural Foods can be very nutrient-dense.
Restricting or refining your intake by trying to stick to a diet that does not align with your cultural values can cause fatigue, mindless snacking, cravings, decreased metabolism, and even stress and anxiety while trying to maintain an unfamiliar diet pattern. Let’s not do that, honey.
Many cultural foods are nutrient-dense and contain fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
For example (drumroll please!!), plantains! Plantains are integral to dishes from the Eastern to Western African coasts, South and Central Americas, West Indies, and Caribbean regions. They are delicious and packed with vital nutrients that promote health and adequate nourishment.
Let’s dive in, shall we?
One medium plantain contains:
- Just under 3 grams of protein
- 16% of your daily fiber requirement
- 54% of the recommended Vitamin C intake
- 6% of iron intake
- 25% of your needed Vitamin B6 intake
- 16% of your daily magnesium intake!
Source: FoodData Central. Accessed July 8, 2022. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/1103064/nutrients
5. Who TF let cauliflower decide to be rice, pizza crust, and nuggets?!
Ok! Let’s clear the air… There’s nothing wrong with cauliflower. NOTHING.
It’s delicious and surprisingly versatile! But my point is, while the innovation of cauliflower is creative, the message that ethnic foods are somehow the “unhealthy, poorer, or bad” choice is unfair and non-inclusive.
Not all swaps are “better” or “healthier,” nor do they honor and promote ethnic diversity and inclusivity.
Cultural competence is the idea and deliberate effort to make room for an individual’s ethnic foods and preferences while providing nutrition counseling or medical nutrition therapy. It is how we, as practitioners, honor our clients by making their uniqueness an integral part of their treatment.
The key takeaway from all of this is that …
So, if someone tells you to make food swaps or cut out YOUR cultural foods that feed your body AND your soul so you can fit into a standard diet or standard anything…
Remember that ain’t it, honey.
~ Taylor Lucas, MS, Nutrition & Dietetics
Talk with one of our Dietitians
Taylor, along with our entire team of dietitians, is now accepting clients. If you want to know how working with a dietitian can help you with a new approach to food and nutrition, then please book a call with Erica. She will review your particular needs and situation to determine which one of our dietitians (Including Taylor) is the best one for you to partner with to achieve your goals!
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Following the Recipes for Recovery Cookbook will help you:
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- Challenge and let go of food restrictions and rigid rules to rekindle a healthy and fulfilling pattern of eating
- See success as you continue to discover food freedom
Taylor is a Registered Dietitian to be and is a graduate level Dietetic Intern. She’s completing her master’s degree in nutritional sciences at CUNY Hunter. As a future registered dietitian, Taylor intends to share her passion for plant-centered, culturally competent nutrition therapy, particularly within the African American and Latinx communities. Learn more about Taylor.
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