Heritage diets have important health benefits and policy implications, review finds

In a recent review article published in the journal Advances in Nutrition, researchers synthesized the components of traditional Latin American, Asian, and African heritage diets and their association with diet quality and health markers.

Perspective: Beyond the Mediterranean Diet—Exploring Latin American, Asian, and African Heritage Diets as Cultural Models of Healthy Eating. Image Credit: akiyoko / Shutterstock

Perspective: Beyond the Mediterranean Diet—Exploring Latin American, Asian, and African Heritage Diets as Cultural Models of Healthy Eating. Image Credit: akiyoko / Shutterstock

Background

Traditional diets, defined as culturally and environmentally aligned eating patterns featuring home-cooked, biodiverse foods, face displacement by processed foods, leading to diet-related diseases.

This "nutrition transition" poses significant public health challenges, especially in the United States, where dietary acculturation often decreases diet quality and exacerbates health disparities among racial and ethnic groups.

This review, which identified and narratively synthesized relevant biomedical, biological, and social scientific literature, highlighted the value of common elements across traditional Latin American, Asian, and African diets in improving dietary guidance and called for more research on their health impacts and cultural relevance.

Characteristics of traditional diets

Traditional Latin American, Asian, and African diets typically follow a "core-fringe-legume" pattern, emphasizing unrefined carbohydrates, vegetables, small amounts of meats, and legumes.

While historically, some traditional diet elements, like high salt for preservation, pose health risks, others are beneficial. Cultural preferences for refined grains have also impacted nutritional quality.

Despite variations, key health-promoting components have been identified and used to create diet quality scores predicting health outcomes. Limited research exists on these diets outside Western contexts, but evidence suggests they can achieve dietary quality similar to the Mediterranean diet.

Latin American heritage diets

Latin American dietary habits and food traditions are diverse, reflecting the region's rich cultural, geographical, and historical variations. Traditional Latin American diets are generally characterized by whole grains (primarily maize) and beans, abundant fruits and vegetables, and sometimes seafood.

Despite regional differences, many elements of these diets, such as quinoa and amaranth, have been recognized as "superfoods."

The Oldways Latin American Heritage Pyramid illustrates this dietary pattern's broad array of foods, highlighting its health benefits. Hispanic Americans, despite higher risk factors for heart disease, often have lower rates of heart disease and longer life expectancy, possibly due to their traditional diets and strong social support.

Studies show that adherence to these diets, rich in beans, fruits, and vegetables, correlates with improved health markers like higher high-density lipoprotein cholesterol and lower blood pressure.

Programs in the United States that incorporate these dietary principles, especially among Mexican Americans, show promise in improving health outcomes. However, more research is needed to sustain and adapt these benefits for diverse Hispanic subgroups.

Asian heritage diets

Traditional Asian food patterns reflect the region's vast cultural and geographical differences. Common elements among these diets include a high intake of vegetables, vegetarian protein sources such as tofu and legumes, whole grains like millet and barley, and fermented foods.

Okinawa, Japan, known for its high longevity, emphasizes root vegetables, soybean-based foods, and moderate consumption of marine foods and lean meats. While Japanese diets share similarities with Mediterranean diets, such as high vegetable and fish intake, they are high in salt.

Across Asia, traditional diets are predominantly plant-based and associated with numerous health benefits, including lower risks of chronic diseases. However, globalization and dietary transitions, such as increased consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages and refined grains, pose new health risks.

Despite these changes, many Asian countries maintain high diet quality scores, preserving the healthful components of their traditional diets. Studies indicate that Asian diets, rich in fiber, continue to show promise for chronic disease prevention.

African heritage diets

Across the African diaspora, traditional food patterns encompass a wide range of cultural dishes.

African heritage cuisine broadly describes the traditional food items and preparations Africans brought to the New World, influenced by regions like the American South, continental Africa, South America, and the Caribbean.

Key African heritage foods include black-eyed peas, okra, and collard greens, rooted in Central and West Africa. During the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and subsequent Great Migration, African American cuisine continued to evolve, incorporating local ingredients and shaping American cuisine.

Afro-Caribbean and Afro-South American cuisines also emerged, blending African staples with local flavors. Studies suggest that traditional African heritage diets, high in fiber and whole grains, offer significant health benefits.

Despite the nutrition transition, many healthful habits persist, with traditional diets maintaining high dietary quality. However, African-descendant populations face challenges like systemic racism and socioeconomic inequities, impacting their access to healthy foods and nutritional choices.

Conclusions

The study highlights the shift from traditional diets to highly processed foods, posing public health challenges. It emphasizes the health benefits of traditional diets, rich in legumes, vegetables, and whole grains, aligning with dietary guidelines but with less emphasis on animal products.

This perspective underscores the importance of culturally appropriate nutrition education in improving dietary quality. Strengths include discussing the benefits of traditional diets; however, limitations involve the scarcity of research in diverse regions and the lack of systematic reviews.

Future research should focus on the impacts of culturally tailored nutrition interventions to inform supportive policies.

Journal reference:
  • Beyond the Mediterranean diet – exploring Latin American, Asian, and African heritage diets as cultural models of healthy eating. LeBlanc, K.E., Baer-Sinnott, S., Lancaster, K.J., Campos, H., Lau, K.H.K., Tucker, K.L., Kushi, L.H., Willett, W.C. Advances in Nutrition (2024). DOI: 10.1016/j.advnut.2024.100221, https://advances.nutrition.org/article/S2161-8313(24)00055-3/fulltext
Priyanjana Pramanik

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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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