The Eurocentricity of diets: How to incorporate culture into healthy eating

  • 'Western' healthy eating plans tend to sideline other cultures
  • It's easier to stick to a diet if it incorporates your own traditional food
  • Many traditional African foods help to improve gut health

When you look at healthy eating messaging, how much of it actually involves your own traditional diet?

There are numerous diets that claim to help you lose weight, enhance your health, fight disease and improve your gut health, but they tend to be entirely Eurocentric, ignoring food from other cultures, especially African foods.

Our core values and cultural beliefs influence our nutrition, and it's important to remember that when starting a journey to healthier eating.

READ | Weak, crazy or witchcraft? Mental illness and cultural stigmas 

Heritage and health

"Food is much more than energy for our bodies; it’s also a cultural heritage and what people eat tells us who they are," explains dietitian Mpho Tshukudu, author of EAT TING at the recent One Health Summit on gut health.

Her work encourages South Africans to include heritage food in their daily meals.

“After suffering from numerous food allergies, I started taking a closer look at my Anglo-Eurocentric diet. I noticed that as we acculturated to Western foods and a city lifestyle, we moved further away from our traditional foods.” 

This is what dietitians term the "nutrition transition".

“Many of my clients were also being diagnosed with lifestyle diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure and abdominal fat,” says Tshukudu. Many of them, mostly black women, are the first generation to suffer from these "modern" diseases. 

Social media

Another important step is to analyse where you're getting your nutritional information. Social media has become the most important source of information in most modern societies – whether correct or not – and slim white women with their kale and berry smoothies are dominating the online conversation.

For example, yoghurt is marketed as a modern ideal food that's good for gut health, but you'll see very little flashy marketing of its fermented cousin amasi, a traditional staple in many South African households.

This can create a disconnect for people a non-Western background, causing an internal struggle between what the media says is good food and what they were told is good for you growing up. 

"African cultures are not shown their traditional food as healthy," says Tshukudu.

This she says is leading South African women to quick-fix solutions like laxatives or other herbal preparations for relief instead of adjusting their eating habits.

READ MORE | How does social media shape your food choices? 

Cultural nuances

It's also important to look at what unhealthier food products are elevated by cultural traditions, and try to create a shift in thinking that still celebrates your heritage.

South Africans place a high status on meat and see vegetables as "poverty food", while there are over 60 different kinds of traditional leaves like morogo – a type of South African spinach – that's actually really healthy. Understanding these cultural nuances can help craft healthier diets for you and your family.

"We have been eating foraged, organic, ancient, gluten-free, vegan, low GI, low GL, slow-cooked, seasonal, sustainable, grass-fed, hormone-free for generations."  

For dietitians

From a dietitian's perspective, it's easier to stick to healthy eating plans by merging science with culturally acceptable advice.

This requires some research on the part of the dietitian and discussing with the client their favourite foods growing up, and what they would eat when visiting family. Tshukudu even recommends that dietitians actually taste their client's cultural food.

You also have to consider what cultural taboos might surround health, like discussing the shape of your stool and the regularity of your bowel movements.

It's important to normalise talking about gut health in order to facilitate healthier discussions around nutrition. 

"You don't want to lose yourself while gaining health," says the author.

READ | How the pandemic is highlighting the role of the dietitian

Here are some culturally inclusive tips from Tshukudu that will promote a healthier gut:

  • Prebiotics that help stimulate healthy bacterial communities include onion, ginger and garlic, as well as spices like black pepper, cayenne pepper, cinnamon and turmeric.
  • Sprouting, soaking and fermenting grains, lentils, beans and vegetables will improve digestion and decrease flatulence and discomfort. Examples are fermented sorghum and millet. Your body also gets used to digesting legumes, so you can eat them regularly – at least three to four times a week.
  • Eat fruit with a high polyphenol content like pomegranates, figs, blackberries and baobab.
  • Vegetables are key, and don’t shy away from traditional leaves rich in nutrients and fibre like morogo. Use it in pesto and add to salads, soups and smoothies.
  • Reduce meat consumption and replace some meat proteins with plant proteins like nuts and legumes.
  • Many South Africans are lactose intolerant, but can digest fermented dairy foods like amasi and yoghurt. 

INFOGRAPHIC | Food swapping cheat sheet for better gut health

Image credit: Pixabay

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