Healthy Eating Across Cultures: Broaden Your Nutrition Worldview

Tune into social or mass media, and often you’ll see healthy food pictured as kale salads, green smoothies, and grilled chicken. But healthy eating doesn’t look the same for everyone, and it’s possible to eat healthy and remain true to your culture and customs.

We asked some Fitbit health coaches how they think about and guide others through combining different cultural food preferences with healthy eating goals. It comes down to a three-step process.

Use the Balanced Plate

Start by taking a look at the Fitbit Guide to Building a Balanced Plate, which encourages filling half your plate with vegetables, a quarter with healthy carbohydrate-rich foods, a quarter with lean protein foods, and a small dollop of healthy fats.

Then ask yourself what are the vegetables, grains, proteins and fats predominant in your culture? And what are some easier, healthier cooking methods? 

“In a lot of Mexican food, the main source of fat is lard, specifically in tortillas and tamales, and there are ways to substitute it for olive oil,” says Stefanie Valdez, a Fitbit health coach and Certified Health Education Specialist who’s studied nutrition across cultures. “I’ve also used whole wheat flour and have used jackfruit to substitute meat in tamales.

The real distinguisher between foods across cultures often is in the spices, not the different meats or vegetables. “The integrity of the food is in the spices that make the flavors,” Valdez says.

Focus on what connects you

The second step is to focus on the connections made around the food, as much or more than the foods themselves.

“In a lot of cultures, not just the Latino culture, food is what brings family together, so what you’re eating is secondary to who you’re enjoying your food with,” Valdez says.

Salome Rivera, a Fitbit health coach and dietitian, agrees. “I can totally relate to wanting to eat healthy but balance the cultural favorites and also personalities,” she says. “Family members, especially those that are more traditional, sometimes aren’t the most supportive (of different wellness journeys).”

She suggests seeing what recipes might be able to be made more healthfully, yet recognizing that some cultural dishes don’t translate well with swaps. “So I advise portion control and mindful eating,” Rivera says. “Enjoying all the foods in moderation and focusing on the social component—that’s really what it’s all about.”

Amirah Rahmat, a Fitbit health coach in Singapore, says there’s a wide variety of cultural food practices there, with taste, cost, and convenience all playing a role in nutrition habits. “Singaporeans perceive food as a national pastime and eating as a national obsession,” Rahmat says. “We love our foods!”

Think about adding for balance

Finally, if you want to enjoy cultural favorites at holidays, family gatherings, or any other time, truly savor them when you eat and expand your mind from there about healthy eating, says John Moreno, Fitbit health coach. 

“I grew up on Mexican food 6 to 7 times a week, so eating healthy for me meant adapting those recipes to be healthier,” Moreno says. “I’m vegan most of the week with a vegetarian meal here and there now, and I still look for ways to adapt what I grew up on into my newer current eating habits.”

Instead of avoiding your abuela’s classic dish, consider ways you can create more balance on your plate. What’s missing—vegetables, protein, grains? Ask yourself what you can add to make your plate more nutritionally complete.

It doesn’t have to be kale. When you focus on the nourishing foods you enjoy, and the people you enjoy them with, you’ll be a healthier, happier eater.

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