3 tips for connecting traditional foods & healthy eating

The famous spicy Thai dish called 'Pak Krapao Moo', fried pork with holy basil in English.

Every culture has its food traditions. The ability to explore other cuisines is an exciting part of life, especially in the U.S. where so many cultures come together. But things can get tricky when it comes to nutrition.

Take the MyPlate guidelines, which are created by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The guidelines replaced the agency’s food pyramid in 2011 in an effort to give Americans a simple guide to making healthier food choices. At a glance, you can see that the USDA recommends:

  • Fruits and vegetables take up half the plate
  • Grains and protein each take up a quarter, and
  • You need about a cup of low-fat dairy.

My plate illustrationImage credit: MyPlate.gov 

While building a plate that mirrors those guidelines isn’t that difficult, most of us don’t sit down to a plate of food with 5 different sections for each meal. It might be more practical and economical to make a one-pot meal, or this plate may simply not look anything like what we grew up eating. Those factors — and many more including access, cost and tradition — make it challenging to square nutrition and cultural foods.

“My family is Indian, so I grew up eating more starches and vegetables that would not easily fit into the MyPlate guidelines, and that would certainly be very different from what is considered ‘normal’ in the South,” says Reena Panjwani, a registered dietitian-nutritionist at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee.

“In my professional life, I work with people from all walks of life, so I see how food access, socioeconomic status and culture play into healthy eating. For example, a common recommendation for healthy eating is telling people to switch from white rice to brown rice or quinoa. But some people might not have access to that where they live, or they may have never even heard of quinoa! We have to be mindful of those things so we can help people build a healthy eating plan that comes from a place of cultural humility and inclusivity.”

What are cultural foods?

Cultural foods — also known as “traditional dishes” — represent the customs, beliefs and traditions of a:

  • Geographic region
  • Ethnic group
  • Religious group
  • Cross-cultural community

Cultural foods often play a big part in holiday and religious celebrations, family gatherings and community events. Many involve spiritual beliefs about how certain foods must be prepared or when they should be eaten, such as keeping kosher in Judaism, observing Lent in Christianity and eating halal (lawful) foods as a Muslim. In addition to symbolizing a group’s culture, traditional dishes have often been passed down for generations, which makes them tricky to modify.

“In Tennessee, for example, the Southern style of cooking has roots from West Africa where many enslaved people came from. In other parts of the South, such as in Louisiana, there may be more of a Caribbean influence based on the use of spices and certain types of vegetables,” says Panjwani. “If you’re looking at the Caribbean diet solely through the USDA lens, you’ll see it contains less protein and dairy and more starches, legumes, fruits and vegetables. That doesn’t mean one way of eating is healthier than another; it just means each person has to look at what they are eating to ensure they’re getting adequate vitamins and nutrients and maintaining an overall healthy lifestyle.”

What is cultural humility?

As a dietitian, Panjwani finds it helpful to focus on cultural humility: a lifelong process of self-reflection and evaluation of her core beliefs, values, assumptions and biases. It helps her to come from a place of learning and understanding, not judgment.

“For me, cultural humility is about acknowledging differences and recognizing that everybody has a completely different story,” Panjwani says. “To help people make any kind of change, including eating healthier, you have to meet them where they are. Cultural humility is a great way for anyone to approach another culture because it’s all about understanding.”

3 tips for keeping cultural foods healthy

1. Look at ingredients, not the finished dish

One-pot meals are common in nearly every cuisine — think gumbo or casserole in the South, biryani in Indian cuisine or arroz con pollo (chicken and rice) in Mexico. But it can be difficult to keep those dishes in line with the MyPlate guidelines, or whatever healthy framework you’re using.

“Instead of looking at the plate, look at the ingredients and how they fit into the categories,” says Panjwani. “If you’re making a casserole, make sure half is made up of non-starchy vegetables, a quarter is protein, and a quarter is starch. You can also include a serving of dairy.

“By looking at the ingredients side-by-side before you start cooking, you’ll be able to say, ‘Okay, this dish could use an extra handful of green vegetables,’ or ‘I could add tofu to boost my protein.’ Getting all your ingredients laid out first allows you to make those small, healthy adjustments — and it happens to be a best practice that professional chefs swear by to keep their kitchens organized and their cooking streamlined.”

2. Budget your foods by day or week

Planning is key when it comes to balancing healthy eating with religious celebrations, family gatherings, community events, etc.

“I approach cultural foods the same way I approach holiday eating,” says Panjwani. “When you know you’re going to be indulging more at one meal or over a certain weekend, adjust the rest of your day or week around it. Try to eat more vegetables and lean proteins, and be mindful of portion sizes — both before and at the event. Focus on eating mindfully but don’t get too hung up on rules. As long as you eat healthily and aren’t trying to lose weight to manage a health condition, it’s healthy to treat yourself every once in a while.”

3. Swap or update one thing at a time

Cultural foods can be particularly challenging if you eat them often and they don’t have much nutritional value. For example, your family might eat pasta with meat sauce every Friday night, or deep-fried foods every Sunday after church. While budgeting for these foods will help, you can also take control by making small changes.

“In the U.S., many dietitians will tell people to switch from dark meat to chicken breast,” says Panjwani. “While that’s something you can do, chicken breast isn’t commonly used in many cultures. You might need to start with smaller changes — remove the skin, pan fry instead of deep fry, or mix the light and dark meat together.

“If your home cooking relies heavily on starches such as white rice, pasta or bread, try to incorporate whole-grain versions, add vegetables to dishes that are only meat and starch, or just consider portion size more carefully.

“As dietitians, we know we don’t know everything! Look for advice from people who want to learn about what you eat and why. And don’t be afraid to Google and gather information from reputable sources. People from every culture have great ideas on how to make their own cuisines a little healthier.”

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Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).

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Get more information about specific health terms, topics and conditions to better manage your health on bcbst.com. BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee members can access wellness-related discounts on fitness products, gym memberships, healthy eating and more through Blue365®. BCBST members can also find tools and resources to help improve health and well-being by logging into BlueAccess and going to the Managing Your Health tab.