National Nutrition Month: Food Culture

Updated March 23, 2022by BetterHelp Editorial Team

March is National Nutrition Month and the 2022 Nutrition Month theme is “Celebrate A World Of Flavors.” One great way to celebrate National Nutrition Month is to learn about culture’s influence on the food we eat.

Understanding Culture

In simple terms, culture is the social patterns of a group that make them different from other groups of people. Your culture may include things like where you live, what primary language you speak, what religion you believe in and affect the music you like, the clothes you wear and the food you eat. For National Nutrition Month, we are diving into the huge impact culture has on how we view health, and how we get nutrition.

What Is Food Culture?

The food you eat, how you eat it, where you buy it, when you eat it and more creates a culture of its own— your food culture. For example, what foods do you- and the people around you- eat on holidays? Do you buy your food at an open-air market or a grocery store? What foods do you eat when you are feeling sick? Are there times of the year where you fast? The answers to all of these questions are part of what makes up your food culture.

How Culture Affects The Types Of Foods We Eat 

Culture affects the type of food you like to eat from a very young age. Did you know your food preferences and tastes likely begin to shape before you are even born? A study on the National Institute of Health website found that flavors of foods like carrots, garlic and anise are transmitted into amniotic fluid, swallowed by the fetus and can shape your taste for years to come. Specifically, the study found that babies whose mothers drank carrot juice while pregnant seemed to like carrot flavors more than babies who weren’t exposed to the flavor of carrots frequently in the womb. So if you grew up in a culture where people frequently cooked carrots, and your mother ate carrots frequently— chances are you would have liked carrots as soon as they were introduced to you as a solid food.

Our Culture’s Healthy Foods Are Not The Only Healthy Foods

Most countries have nutritional guides to help their citizens learn about healthy foods. In America, we use the “My Plate” guide to show what kinds of food you should eat at every meal. Vegetables, fruits, grains, and proteins are all shown on the plate with a cup labeled “dairy” next to it. In Japan, they use a spinning top model for their food guide, and in China they use an illustration of a pagoda. 
While the food groups you are recommended to eat and the serving sizes are very similar in many cultures, the examples of food shown are different. Would you ever think to include frozen okra in your food guide for daily vegetables? Qatar does! What about sushi as a grain? You’ll find that on the Japanese food guide. When you think about nutritional health, don’t be afraid to try new foods from other cultures, even if it may be outside your current norm.

What Foods Do We Eat The Most Of In The U.S.?

For National Nutrition Month, The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends celebrating by eating a variety of foods with nutrition — including ones from different cultures!

Americans consume quite a lot of dairy, tomatoes, and potatoes. In 2021, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that the average American will consume about 655 pounds of dairy a year. We also eat about 50 pounds of potatoes and more than 30 pounds of tomatoes a year. 
Food consumption, availability, and preferences vary wildly depending on where in the world you live. For example, we eat far less potatoes than many cultures in Eastern Europe. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the average person in Belarus will eat an average of about 400 pounds of potatoes a year, about 8 times what the average American eats! 
What Foods Are Unique To American Culture?

While America is a melting pot to many cultures and food cultures, there are some foods that are uniquely American. For example, the first chocolate chip cookie came from the Toll House Restaurant in Whitman, Massachusetts. You can find the first recipe for a s’more in the 1927 Girl Scout guidebook. And chicken fried steak is thought to have originated in Texas in the 1800s. 

How Culture Affects Our Views On Health

What does “healthy” look like to you? The answer to this question will likely depend on your culture and the cultures around you. Culture affects our views on body size and the methods we use to accept or control our body size.  

How Culture Affects Our Views On Body Size
Different cultures view health differently. For example, a Nutrition Journal article explains that in many African and Middle Eastern countries a larger body size is seen as a sign of richness, health, strength, and fertility. In comparison, a study of women considered to be above a healthy weight in America found that only about half were satisfied with their body weight and 65% were currently trying to lose weight. 
In all reality, neither perspective is the healthiest way to view body size and weight. Rather than setting our sights on reaching a goal weight, reframe your goals to focus on your inner health, not just a number on a scale. How can you become the healthiest version of yourself? How can you work on your mental and physical health to feel more body positive? 

Diet Culture

According to the University of California- San Diego Recreation website, diet culture is “a set of beliefs that values thinness, appearance, and shape above health & well-being.” And diet culture’s norm of promoting thinness above wellness is even more concerning when you consider that every year about half of U.S. adults try to lose weight. 

The Negative Impact Of Diet Culture On Americans

Research shows that weight and size isn’t an accurate reflection of someone’s health status. The view that smaller is better can lead to ineffective and harmful attempts at weight loss rather than effective efforts to boost someone’s health and wellness. Often diet culture involves labeling some foods as “good” and others as “bad”, normalizing negative self-talk and restricting calories. The National Eating Disorder Association says diet culture is particularly dangerous because it can perpetuate eating disorders and make a full recovery almost impossible. 

Health At Every Size

If you are struggling to maintain a healthy weight, don’t substitute evidence-based interventions with dieting. Instead, learn more about the Health At Every Size® (HAES®) approach. This approach promotes balanced eating, physical activity, and respect for all body shapes and sizes. This approach may include working with a HAES-based dietitian professional and using online counseling services like BetterHelp to improve both your physical and mental health.  

Intuitive Eating

A study on PubMed.gov found women who used Health at Every Size interventions significantly increased their intuitive eating score and saw significant improvement in diet quality. Intuitive eating, also known as mindful eating, focuses on paying attention to when you feel hungry or full instead of restricting foods. A Brown University study reported that intuitive eating actually helped cut down food cravings by nearly 40% and reduced overeating behavior, to cope with negative emotions, by 36%. For National Nutrition Month, participating in intuitive eating is a great way to take care of your body.

Whether you are affected by an eating disorder or just looking for support as you learn more about intuitive eating, therapy can help.Studies show that participating in online cognitive behavioral therapy leads to significant improvement over time for people with eating disorders. A licensed therapist is able to talk to you about the problems you are facing surrounding food, brainstorm recovery strategies and relapse prevention strategies with you and address underlying causes of your eating disorder.
”Dr. Smith listens to my concerns and thinks carefully before responding. I always feel like I'm in a safe-judgment free zone when we talk. When I told her I was interested in Intuitive Eating, she researched it so she could understand where I was coming from. A truly empathetic, kind, and knowledgeable professional.” 

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