Food, Culture, Identity and Well-Being:A Complex Relationship by Anjali Patel, MPH, RD
For the past several years, US News and World Report has named the Mediterranean diet the “best diet overall,” and, as a registered dietitian, I admit that I have often recommended this pattern of eating as the gold standard. After all, it is evidence-based and backed by science. But as a South Asian who uses Indian cooking methods and foods, I am starting to think that maybe we need to consider the connotations of “best” and what designating one diet as superior means for all the other foodways around the world. If we use the lens of diversity, equity and inclusion, we may understand why it’s important to reconsider naming or even thinking of the Mediterranean dietary pattern and foodway as the best, default option.
What are foodways?
Foodways are the cultural, social and economic practices relating to the production and consumption of food. Foodways refer to the intersection of food in culture, traditions and history. The Mediterranean dietary pattern—one type of foodway—has held a vaunted position in many of our minds. By placing it on a pedestal, we may unintentionally communicate that other cultures are less than, inferior and/or aren’t as healthy. And this is not true. Don’t get me wrong—the Mediterranean diet has been (and continues to be) well-researched, and it offers a lot of evidence-based health benefits. I am not against the Mediterranean diet, but rather, I’m encouraging us to include other cultural foodways into our conversations and communication strategies: foodways that may not have had the privilege of being researched yet but which may also have health and well-being benefits. Many traditional or cultural dietary patterns worldwide are more similar than different, and many foodways include plant foods as the base for every meal.
Food access and social determinants of health
Access to “healthy food,” or food security, is one of the social determinants of health. Expanding on that, cultural food security is a social determinant of health for many communities and individuals. Wright et al. (2020) write, “Cultural food security exists when there is the availability, access, utilization (i.e., food preparation, sharing, and consumption; foodways), and stability of cultural food.” Without these identity components (and being disconnected from one’s culture and identity), feelings of social isolation may develop (another social determinant of health), leading to sadness, depression, anxiety and loneliness. These may negatively impact well-being and health.
Food connects us to our childhood, family and cultural traditions. Wright and his colleagues studied the impact of cultural food security on identity and well-being among second-generation American minority college students. They developed a conceptual framework to illustrate the relationship between cultural food security, foodways, identity and well-being. “Cultural food security creates an environment where participants can carry out foodways. Foodways act as a form of cultural transmission and expression that bind cultural members together and accentuate cultural identity.” And, for some communities/individuals, cultural identity is deeply connected to physical, mental and emotional well-being. In other words, food (especially cultural foods) may be more than nourishment for the body; it can provide nourishment for the soul and bring joy and/or a social connection and belonging.
So, whether you feel your best on a Mediterranean dietary pattern, a different cultural foodway or a combination of foodways, embrace the plant-based commonality between these traditional dietary patterns. Enjoy more ways to include plant foods, including veggies, fruits, whole grains and plant-based proteins (lentils, beans, soy, tofu, tempeh, nuts, seeds, etc.). Here are some tips for how to include more plant foods into your foodway:
Add a handful of seeds/nuts to the salad you already enjoy.
If you like chips and salsa, try adding black beans to your favorite salsa.
Quinoa cooks the same as basmati (or white) rice, so the next time you make basmati (or white) rice, try using ¾ rice and ¼ quinoa.
Sprinkle some nutritional yeast (a good source of fiber and protein) on popcorn, dal or soup.
Add some kidney beans or beluga lentils to your pasta sauce.
Add a handful of baby spinach into your subji, tikka masala, dal, stir fry, eggs, soups, sandwiches, salads or pasta sauces (in fact, add it to pretty much anything!).
If you like a classic peanut butter and jelly sandwich, throw in some chia seeds.
If you’re looking for resources and recipes based on shared cultural food traditions, please check out Oldways.
Social Determinants of Health. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion
What's The Mediterranean Diet? US News & World Report
Wright, K.E., Lucero, J.E., Ferguson, J.K. et al. The impact that cultural food security has on identity and well-being in the second-generation U.S. American minority college students. Food Sec. 13, 701–715 (2021). doi.org/10.1007/s12571-020-01140-w
Anjali Patel, MPH, RD
Anjali Patel is a registered dietitian (RD) specializing in public health, research and community nutrition. Born and raised in Ottawa, Canada, Anjali moved to a small town in Kumamoto, Japan, after graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Life Sciences. There, she taught English and spent her free time on grassroots internationalization projects centered on food and culture. This work fueled her passion for community nutrition. She returned to school to pursue her RD and Master of Public Health. On the side, she worked in nutrition research, nutrition communications and public health programs and strategy. In 2011, Anjali moved to the US and worked with the restaurant industry on environmental change and consumer behavior change research funded by the Center for Disease Control and the National Institute of Health. Anjali is a food and nutrition educator who creates programs and strategies that aim to foster a positive relationship with food, cultural foodways and social health. She believes that food holds power beyond nourishment for the body. It is identity, belonging and what connects us.
Anjali Patel, MPH, RD
Co-Founder, VENN Food + Nutrition