What is American food? The answer is a variety of diets. America is a melting pot of cultures and with each culture comes a different diet. However, when you ask what is healthy American food, it is usually categorized as one type of diet which consists of salads, fruits, and lean meats. In reality though, a healthy meal will look different for each culture in America.
What does equality mean when it comes to our food and diet?
Traditional foods can be full of nutrients while still being consistent to the flavors of your culture. Yet, when the government, companies, and marketing agencies promote nutrition, they forget to represent every diet, culture, and tradition. As a dietitian, I see the results. Nearly 99 percent of my clients are African Americans and many of them ask me the same question:
“Do I Have to Start Eating like the White People?”
When I hear this question I cringe. My stomach turns. But, I know why they ask this.
Many African Americans see white people’s food consisting of just salads, fruits, yogurts, cottage cheeses, lean entrees filled with garlic, balsamic dressings, spices and herbs. These recipes were unheard of in African American kitchens and never made it in Big Mama’s pantry.
“Eating like the White People,” didn’t come from anywhere. This cliché was rooted in black communities by food and nutrition programs, marketing strategies, and media who dispersed healthy eating pamphlets with images of white families appearing to be eating salads, fruits, and small portions of meat.
These programs and agencies were promoting what healthy eating looked like in America. But, they forget that America is a melting pot of cultures. African Americans along with other cultures were never represented in these ‘eat healthy’ pamphlets.
These ‘healthy eating’ pamphlets and advertisements, arguably, may be the reasons why some African Americans were led to think that they could only be healthy if they ate like white people.
Who Gets To Decide What Is Promoted As Healthy Meals?
Media, technology, and marketing strategies have been a driving force in shaping food trends for decades. They are the forces behind promoting healthy eating habits that don’t represent every culture’s diet. They are also the ones pushing new meal trends that may or may not be for the good of our society.
I have been practicing nutrition for nearly five years in helping people re-learn the healthier side to their favorite, traditional meals and to help create change in communities. The clients I work with are usually African Americans who, because of a number of social and community issues, lack nutrition education and don’t have the knowledge to improve their diet.
A African-American’s traditional diet focuses on soul food. These are foods to nourish the soul and traditionally are rich in nutrients, as found in collard greens and other leafy green and yellow vegetables, legumes, okra, beans, rice and potatoes. Unfortunately, soul food is also seen as an unhealthy type of diet and typically involves fried foods and lots of fatty meats prepared with rich gravies.
My clients want to continue eating their traditional foods and also want to become healthier versions of themselves. But they don’t know where to start because their diets and lifestyle are not represented. Where is the guidebook to healthy eating that includes every culture?
Our Culture and Society Shapes Our Diet
I believe there are no good or bad foods in cultures, there are no correct ways to eat them, and there is definitely no such thing of eating like white people.
Each culture has its own unique food delicacies or traditions that are celebrated. Food is and will always be a core component for enabling individuals to go back to their ancestral roots and learn about their identity as an individual, part of a family, and a member of a broader culture.
Eating Healthy Can Mean Eating Your Traditional Foods
Adopting a healthier eating habit is not ‘Eating like the White People.’ All individuals, regardless of ethnicity enjoy indulging in high-fat, sugary desserts or foods that we know are ‘bad’ for us. I’m also certain that all individuals, regardless of ethnicity enjoy eating healthier meals that are full of flavor.
Eating fruits, vegetables, lean protein, and low-fat dairy products, while incorporating ethnic flavors and fresh ingredients is how all individuals should strive to eat to achieve optimum health. By eating a healthier version of your family's favorite recipes or traditional foods will not only make you feel better, but will also further connect you to your roots.
When you start eating healthier, your wellness journey begins. You will start feeling better. Your body will heal itself from food and nutrition-related illnesses. Plus, you’ll gain more energy to help you complete daily tasks and exercise. Most importantly, you don’t need to give up on your culture and its traditional recipes in order to eat healthy!
Article written by Charmaine Jones, MS, RDN, LDN