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How Culture Affects Diet

by
author image Linda H. Lamb
Linda H. Lamb is a veteran newspaper journalist whose experience includes over 10 years at "The State," South Carolina's largest newspaper. As its medical writer, she was named top beat reporter in the state (2003), with a special interest in nutrition-related issues including obesity, chronic disease management and cancer. Lamb holds a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from Michigan State University.
How Culture Affects Diet
Sliced cassava roots on a wooden counter. Photo Credit Alida Vanni/iStock/Getty Images

When you grow up in a distinctive culture, it’s bound to influence your lifestyle, your belief system — and perhaps most enjoyably, your diet. You might have a soft spot for mama’s marinara, an aunt’s curry and chapatis, dad’s barbecue ribs or grandmother’s holiday tamales. Some food traditions are more healthful than others, so you might want to modify some family favorites to fit them into a healthy lifestyle while retaining the taste of home.

Negative and Positive Impact

Different cultures can produce people with varying health risks, though the role of diet is not always clear. For example, African-Americans and many Southerners are at greater risk for ailments such as heart disease and diabetes, but Southern-style fried foods, biscuits and ham hocks might not be the only culprits. Income levels, limited access to healthier foods and exercise habits might play a role as well. Menus stressing lower-fat foods and lots of vegetables, such as those of many Asian cultures, can result in more healthful diets, even reducing the risks for diseases such as diabetes and cancer.

Cultural Shifts

As people from one culture become assimilated into another, their diets might change, and not always for the better. A good example is the shift away from traditional eating patterns among Latinos in the United States. Besides the well-known emphasis on ingredients such as hot chiles and cilantro, traditional, nutritious Latino meals include corn, grains, tubers such as potatoes and yucca, vegetables, legumes and fruits. But a shift to a higher-fat, Americanized diet has raised the obesity rate among Latinos and the health risks that go with it.

Mediterranean Example

How would you like a Mediterranean cruise? Not possible for everyone, but certain Mediterranean cultures feature diets so healthful that lots of people try to emulate them. According to the Cleveland Clinic, nutrition experts years ago took note of typical diets in regions such as Crete, other parts of Greece and southern Italy, where life expectancy was high and heart disease rates were low. The Mediterranean diet includes seasonal foods with minimal processing, plenty of vegetables and whole grains, fresh fruit for dessert instead of sugary sweets, olive oil as the main fat, and moderate amounts of dairy products, fish and poultry.

Healthier Diets

Enjoy your culture and the foods that make it special, but look for ways to tweak diet traditions to make them more healthful. The American Academy of Family Physicians and American Cancer Society suggest you reduce your risks for chronic disease by eating more fruits and vegetables, limiting alcohol consumption, avoiding high-fat and sugary foods, and cutting back on processed foods and red meat. Try substituting less-fattening ingredients — for example, reduced-fat cheese in tacos, veggies instead of meat in lasagna or fat-free yogurt in raita sauce. And include exercise in your personal and family routines, aiming for 30 to 60 minutes of exercise on most days.

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