Every bite of food that we take is a subtle testament to our roots. That’s because what we eat is a tangible expression of our cultural identity. So as we work to improve our diets and lifestyle for better health, we need to do that in the context of understanding traditional food practices.
In this article, we’ll look at cultural nutrition and examine how the traditional foods of various cultures promote good health.
Traditional Diets Around the World
A walk around the world’s culinary landscape reveals the diversity and richness of a culture’s traditional diets. Because many of these cuisines are centered around foods that are locally available, unprocessed and nutrient-rich, they offer a treasure trove of health benefits:
On the sun-drenched shores of the Mediterranean, we find a diet full of vibrant fruits, vegetables, nuts, protein-rich legumes and whole grains. The Mediterranean diet is famed for its use of heart-healthy olive oil and fish while maintaining a low intake of red meat, sugar and saturated fat.
This flavorful cuisine is often associated with a lower risk of heart disease, diabetes and certain types of cancer.
Traveling eastward to the island nation of Japan, we discover a traditional diet that serves as an epitome of simplicity and nutritional wisdom. Japanese cuisine primarily revolves around fish, rice, an array of colorful vegetables and versatile soy products like tofu.
Remarkably low in saturated fat, yet high in omega-3 fatty acids, this cuisine promotes heart health and has been tied to lower rates of obesity and certain cancers. In fact, soy products like miso and natto have been linked to improved gut health and a reduced risk of colon cancer.
Okinawa, a region in Japan, is renowned for its high life expectancies, which is often attributed to the local diet, which is characterized by a low-calorie, plant-based regimen.
Coming up on the harsh yet stunning landscapes of the Arctic, we encounter the Inuit people, whose diet contrasts starkly with those of more temperate regions.
Predominantly based on fish, and other marine mammals, the traditional Inuit diet is high in protein and omega-3 fatty acids while being low in carbohydrates. In addition to providing protection from heart disease and type 2 diabetes, omega-3 fatty acids have also been linked to a reduced risk of depression.
Indigenous peoples, spanning from the Native American tribes of North America to indigenous communities worldwide, have crafted distinctive dietary patterns that reflect their cultural backgrounds. These diets are typically rich in a variety of plant foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, in addition to wild game meat and fish.
Traditional indigenous diets are often low in processed foods, sugar and saturated fat, which helps lower rates of chronic diseases.
The traditional Indian diet presents a symphony of flavors and aromas. Mainly plant-based, this diet showcases a rich assortment of lentils, beans, vegetables, spices and whole grains.
Low in saturated fat and high in fiber, the Indian diet is associated with a lower risk of heart disease, diabetes and certain types of cancer.
Middle Eastern Diet
The Middle Eastern diet is characterized by an abundance of fresh fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts and olive oil. This diet is low in saturated fats and high in monounsaturated fats, which are considered heart-healthy. It often includes lean sources of protein such as fish and poultry, while red meat is consumed in moderation.
Herbs and spices, such as turmeric, cumin, and coriander, are commonly used to enhance flavors in Middle Eastern cuisine. These spices have been associated with numerous health benefits, including reducing inflammation and the risk of heart disease, diabetes and certain cancers.
Unfortunately, many of these traditional diets are increasingly giving way to Western-style eating habits based on convenience and characterized by an overreliance on processed foods, excessive added sugars and unhealthy fats. This trend poses a threat to the health of individuals and communities globally, driving the rise in chronic disease and obesity rates.
So as you’re looking to improve your health by making positive dietary changes, explore the healthy foods in your own culture and broaden your eating by embracing foods of other cultures. Traditional diets, with their emphasis on whole, unprocessed foods, can help reduce your risk of chronic diseases. Embracing these changes will introduce high nutritional content, fiber and healthy fats that can contribute to better gut health, weight management, improved mental health and even increase longevity.