More than Mediterranean: Exploring and acknowledging the benefits of diverse cultural and nutritional heritages

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In a recent article published in Advances in Nutrition, researchers explored how traditional diets followed by African, Asian, and Latin American communities are associated with diet quality and health markers.

Their conclusions suggest that while flavors and ingredients differ among diets considered ‘healthy,’ the contribution of healthful plant foods and high dietary quality is key to reducing the risk of disability and death from various causes.

Study: Perspective: Beyond the Mediterranean Diet -- Exploring Latin American, Asian, and African Heritage Diets as Cultural Models of Healthy Eating. Image Credit: Nungning20/Shutterstock.comStudy: Perspective: Beyond the Mediterranean Diet -- Exploring Latin American, Asian, and African Heritage Diets as Cultural Models of Healthy Eating. Image Credit: Nungning20/Shutterstock.com

Background

The Mediterranean diet, extensively researched for its health benefits, is widely recognized as being healthy. However, there is limited research on traditional diets followed by non-European communities, defined as those consumed over multiple generations, aligned with environmental availability, and religious and/or cultural preferences and environmental availability, emphasizing home-cooked meals with biodiverse foods.

As highly processed foods supplant traditional food systems, diet-related illnesses increase; concurrently, health disparities stem from structural racism and other social determinations, which include economic instability, cultural factors, and unequal access to nutritious food, healthcare, and education.

Recognizing the value of traditional diets and food systems could inform dietary guidance and research directions, alleviating the disproportionate effect of chronic disease on certain ethnic and racial groups. 

This indicates a need to broaden research on diet and health beyond Europe and North America, focusing on Latin American, Asian, and African heritage diets for their relevance to diverse populations in the United States.

Evolution of Latin American diets

Latin American heritage diets blend indigenous, colonial, and African influences, featuring staples like maize, beans, and abundant fruits and vegetables, often with seafood. The Oldways Latin American Heritage Pyramid illustrates this diversity.

Despite risk factors, Hispanic Americans often show lower heart disease rates and longer lifespans, possibly due to their traditional diets and social support.

In Costa Rica's Nicoyan peninsula, adherence to traditional diets correlates with lower blood pressure and reduced heart disease risk. Similarly, in Mexico and other regions, traditional diets are linked to lower inflammation and type 2 diabetes risk.

In the US, interventions based on Latin American heritage diets improve diabetes management among Hispanics. However, diverse Hispanic subgroups have varied diets and health outcomes, with some adopting Western habits, leading to decreased dietary quality, especially in first-generation American children.

Understanding these shifts and promoting culturally tailored programs are vital for addressing health disparities within Hispanic communities.

Traditional and diaspora Asian diets

The diverse Asian food traditions defy a singular representation due to variations within and between countries, cities, and households.

Instead, the broader pattern of Asian heritage diets emphasizes common elements like vegetables, vegetarian protein sources, whole grains, and fermented foods prevalent across East, Southeast, and South Asia.

In Okinawa, Japan, where longevity is notable, the traditional diet focuses on root vegetables, soy-based foods, and marine products. While some liken traditional Japanese diets to Mediterranean patterns, high salt intake remains a concern.

Despite this, Japanese diets correlate with better health outcomes, with recent shifts resembling a fusion of traditional and Western elements.

Across Asia, healthy, predominantly plant-based diets are prevalent, though specific foods vary regionally. Studies highlight associations between traditional Asian diets and reduced risks of chronic diseases, although sodium intake poses concerns.

Asian-descendant populations in the US and Canada face challenges such as high sodium intake and the displacement of traditionally consumed whole grains by refined alternatives, reflecting the ongoing nutrition transition towards processed foods.

Patterns among people of African descent

African diasporic cuisine encompasses many cultural dishes, spanning regions from continental Africa to the Americas. Rather than prescribing a single diet, this perspective recognizes the diverse culinary traditions shaped by slavery and migration.

African American, Afro-Caribbean, and Afro-South American diets blend indigenous African staples and local influences. Foods like okra, collard greens, and black-eyed peas trace their roots to West and Central Africa.

African staples meld with tropical flavors and seafood in the Caribbean and South America, while Afro-South American dietary patterns incorporate European and indigenous influences.

Studies have found that African heritage dietary patterns offer health benefits, with high dietary quality and associations with lower risks of chronic diseases.

Despite challenges posed by the nutrition transition to processed foods, many healthful dietary habits persist, such as high fruit intake in the Caribbean and substantial whole-grain and vegetable consumption in the Sub-Saharan African region.

Intervention studies demonstrate promising outcomes, with traditional African heritage diets linked to reduced inflammation and improved gut health.

However, socioeconomic factors and food access disparities continue to shape dietary choices within African-descendant communities, highlighting the need for further research and culturally tailored interventions to promote health and equity.

Conclusions

Populations globally are shifting from traditional to processed diets, raising public health concerns.

Traditional Asian, Latin American, and African diets emphasize beans, grains, fruits, and vegetables, aligning with dietary guidelines and may offer benefits comparable to those associated with Mediterranean diets.

These dietary patterns, less animal-centric than US guidelines, offer culturally appropriate paths to health and warrant further research and policy support.

Journal reference:
Priyanjana Pramanik

Written by

Priyanjana Pramanik

Priyanjana Pramanik is a writer based in Kolkata, India, with an academic background in Wildlife Biology and economics. She has experience in teaching, science writing, and mangrove ecology. Priyanjana holds Masters in Wildlife Biology and Conservation (National Centre of Biological Sciences, 2022) and Economics (Tufts University, 2018). In between master's degrees, she was a researcher in the field of public health policy, focusing on improving maternal and child health outcomes in South Asia. She is passionate about science communication and enabling biodiversity to thrive alongside people. The fieldwork for her second master's was in the mangrove forests of Eastern India, where she studied the complex relationships between humans, mangrove fauna, and seedling growth.

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