Learn How Culture Impacts Eating Habits During National Nutrition Month

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox
Updated February 22, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

March is National Nutrition Month, an annual celebration of food that has a different theme each year. One way to celebrate this year’s theme is to learn about different cultures’ cuisines and their influences on the food that people eat. Food tends to be an integral part of the cultural fabric of different geographical regions and social groups. The way humans nourish themselves varies widely, and celebrating these differences can help expand your culinary horizons and help you learn more about the history, values, and lifestyles of people from all over the world. 

Below, we’ll discuss how you can celebrate and explore different cultures’ connections to food during National Nutrition Month.

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Understanding culture

Culture is composed of the patterns that make a particular group or region unique. Your culture may include things like where you live, what primary language you speak, and what religion you practice. It may involve the music you like, the clothes you wear, and the food you eat. For National Nutrition Month, we are diving into the impact culture often has on how we view health and nutrition.

What is food culture?

The food you eat, how you eat it, where you buy it, when you eat it, and more can be influenced by the culture in which you live. These elements can be important parts of a person’s 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, a grocery store, or both? What foods do you eat when you are feeling sick? Are there times of the year when you fast? The answers to these questions are part of what makes up your food culture. By embracing food culture from around the globe for National Nutrition Month, you can find out more about how other people approach wellness while eating some delicious food.

How culture affects the food we eat

History, geography, religion, and a variety of other cultural elements can impact the way food is viewed and prepared. For example, a community in a coastal area may have a food culture that is centered on seafood and fresh fruits, while one that is located in the plains may have a food culture that includes more meat or certain vegetables, such as corn. 

Many people avoid certain ingredients and prepare food in specific ways based on cultural or religious guidelines. Even foods that are called the same thing may be different based on the country. For example, a tortilla in Mexico is a type of round, corn-based flatbread, while a tortilla in Spain is an egg-and-potato omelet.

Research suggests that culture can impact the type of food you like to eat from a very young age. Flavors of foods like carrots, garlic, and anise are transmitted in amniotic fluid, are swallowed by the fetus, and can shape the tastes of the person for years to come. Specifically, one 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. Therefore, if you grew up in a culture where people frequently cooked carrots and your mother ate carrots frequently, you may have liked carrots as soon as they were introduced to you as a solid food.

Health standards and culture

Most countries have nutritional guides to help their citizens make healthy food choices. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) uses the “My Plate” guide to illustrate healthy ways of balancing one’s diet. Vegetables, fruits, grains, and proteins are all shown on the plate with a cup labeled “dairy” next to it. 

While the recommended food groups and serving sizes may be similar across many cultures, the examples of food shown are often different. For example, Qatar includes frozen okra as a daily vegetable in its food guide, while Japan lists sushi rice as a grain. When you think about nutritional health, you might try new foods from other cultures, even if they may be outside your current norm. If you have food allergies or any health conditions, you can talk to a physician about any new foods you’d like to try. 

couple smiles over national nutrition month

How is food culture in the United States unique?

The food culture of the United States has been shaped by the traditions and history of different social groups and regions throughout the years. For example, Americans tend to consume a lot of dairy, tomatoes, and potatoes thanks in part to a rich agrarian history in many states. According to the International Dairy Foods Association, in 2020, the average American consumed about 655 pounds of dairy a year. Americans also eat about 50 pounds of potatoes and more than 30 pounds of tomatoes a year.

While the United States contains people from many cultures, there are some foods that might be considered 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. Also, chicken fried steak is thought to have originated in Texas in the 1800s.

Although food can contribute to each country’s unique culture, it can also play a role in nutrition-related health conditions that people tend to experience. For example, food in the United States has contributed to some physical and mental health challenges over the years. The Dietary Guidelines For Americans, produced by the US Department of Health and Human Services and the USDA, state that about half of all Americans have one or more preventable chronic diseases, many of which are related to diet. About 75% of the US population doesn’t eat the recommended amount of vegetables, fruits, dairy, and oils, according to the report. Meanwhile, most Americans consume more than the recommended amounts of sodium, added sugars, and saturated fats.

As you celebrate food culture from around the world for National Nutrition Month, you might consider ways to incorporate more nutritious foods into your diet.

How to explore food cultures from around the world

For National Nutrition Month, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends celebrating by eating a variety of nutritious foods—including those from different cultures. Research shows that a diversified diet—one that includes a variety of different fruits, vegetables, grains, and other dietary staples—can be a major contributor to mental and physical well-being. One way to eat a more balanced diet may be to include ingredients that you may not typically utilize. For example, gai lan is a vegetable you may not have heard of that can be found in several Asian cuisines. Otherwise known as Chinese broccoli, gai lan is a leafy vegetable that contains antioxidants, fiber, and other healthy compounds that can contribute to your well-being. By looking into cuisines you’re unfamiliar with, you may learn more about that culture while taking advantage of the health benefits of a varied diet.

To explore the foods of other cultures, you might consider visiting restaurants in your area that specialize in a cuisine you haven’t tried before. You can also do independent research by reading books, watching videos, or listening to podcasts that touch on food culture in different places. If you’d like to explore further, you can even try to cook traditional meals from other cultures. For example, many countries have national dishes that represent their gastronomy and provide insights into the way they approach nutrition.

To learn more, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has several informational resources on its website, such as tip sheets and handouts, games, planning materials, and more. Finding ways of promoting nutrition in our everyday lives can be good for our physical and mental health.

Looking to explore your relationship with food?

Addressing eating habits with online therapy

If you’re interested in learning more about various food cultures and ways to improve your nutrition, it may help to speak with a nutritionist or mental health counselor who has experience helping people make positive life changes. If you are hesitant to speak with someone in person, you might benefit from speaking to an online counselor, which research has shown to be just as effective as traditional in-person therapy. 

Studies show that online therapy can help individuals manage symptoms of mental health challenges that could lead to potentially unhealthy eating habits. For example, in one study, researchers found that online therapy reduced negative body image and disordered eating in participants. 

With online therapy, you can participate in therapy remotely, which can be helpful if you’re not comfortable discussing topics like self-image or challenges related to food in person. You can connect with a licensed online therapist via phone, live chat, or videoconferencing at a time that works for you. A therapist may also connect you with useful resources, such as at-home exercises that can help you reinforce certain concepts on your own time. 

Counselor review

Read below for reviews of therapists from those who have sought help for similar challenges.

”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.”

Takeaway

Food is a vital component of everyday life, and cultures around the globe have developed cuisines that celebrate it in diverse, healthy ways. National Nutrition Month can serve as an opportunity to explore diversity in food and learn how other cultures approach nutrition. 

If you’d like to address challenges related to diet, body image, or any other areas of concern, consider speaking with a licensed counselor, whether in person or online. With BetterHelp, you can be matched with a licensed therapist who has experience with food-related challenges or any other concerns you may be experiencing. Take the first step toward getting support and reach out to BetterHelp today.

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