It is well known that when immigrants come to the United States and other parts of the Western hemisphere, they quickly adapt their eating styles to ours -- especially the young. People from around the Pacific Rim, South America, the Middle East and Africa who were largely raised on fresh whole foods begin to prefer fast food and other highly processed ingredients, often to the detriment of their nutritional health and well-being. The consequences in terms of obesity and diet-related diseases can be devastating.
This is not a new phenomenon. As it happens, I just returned from a two-day conference that was organized by Oldways, a non-profit organization with focus on culinary and cultural diversity around the globe. Its founder, Dun Gifford, a lawyer, politician, developer and restaurant owner, became concerned as far back as the 1980s with the progressive disappearance of many culinary traditions in favor of what he called "techno foods."
Why does your culture matter when it comes to your food choices, he asked. Because -- no matter where you come from -- it is not in your heritage to become overweight, diabetic, or develop heart disease and cancer, all the leading causes of death in the modern world. What we all should have in common as our birthright is, by contrast, a healthy heart, a strong body, extraordinary energy, and a long and healthy life -- all of which we would be enabled to by access to nutritious and delicious foods.
Instead, many of us have lost their way when it comes to feeding themselves, and it affects those who adopt our lifestyle more recently the most. Part of it is a widespread ignorance and confusion about nutrition and nutritional health.
The conference I mentioned was titled "Finding Common Ground," a meeting of many of the world's leading experts and scientists in the field of dietetics. Although it was clear from the start that there would be (and will continue to be) different, and oftentimes conflicting, views on how and what we should eat, there was also a general consensus on a few basic 'truths' that could be shared by all participants. Among them were the desire that messages about diets should not be distorted or misleading; that some foods yield greater nutritional benefits than others; and that considerations about food consumption should include environmental sustainability concerns. The latter, as you may have heard, is a major point of contention in the upcoming release of the Dietary Guidelines of 2015.
In addition, there was agreement that reviving certain culinary traditions could indeed have the kind of positive impact the Oldways' founder envisioned. For instance, much has been made in recent years of the advantages the so-called 'Mediterranean Diet' can provide, with its richness of mostly plant-based foods. But also many other cultural heritages from South America, Asia and Africa have much to contribute to our rethinking of what it means to eat healthily.
What it ultimately comes down to is not to get blinded by the endless onslaught of diet fads and latest "scientific discoveries," but to focus on the bigger picture and discern what is tried and true, which we can often find by simply going back to our roots, says Sara Baer-Sinnot, the current president of Oldways. For this, we need to communicate clearly and effectively what constitutes healthy and sustainable ways of eating that all consumers can understand and live by, she says.
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Follow Timi Gustafson, R.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/TimiGustafsonRD