Heritage and Health: My Family's Rediscovered Connection to Food
Here in the United States, what we think of as a “normal” diet really has no historical or cultural precedent. At no other point in human existence could we so readily access the smorgasbord of high-calorie, nutrient-poor foods that abound in grocery stores, restaurants, and cafeterias today.
Through globalization, these changes to the food environment have spread rapidly to countries in Asia, Latin America, and Africa. As a result, where local food traditions based predominantly on regional flora once flourished, increasingly “westernized” patterns of eating have come to dominate.
Traditional, plant-rich meals are making up ever smaller proportions of people’s diets across the world due to the influx of highly palatable, western-style foods that are pushed through insidious marketing strategies. A number of other factors, like the industrialization of animal agriculture and a rise in household incomes globally, have enabled previously-unknown access to animal products and other refined foods high in saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium. Unsurprisingly, the growing consumption of meat, ultra-processed foods, and sugary beverages is contributing to a public health epidemic that is now global in scale.
And it’s happening in places you wouldn’t expect. For example, Ghana’s obesity rate has risen to a whopping 22%. After Egypt, it has the second-highest obesity rate in Africa, and many other rapidly urbanizing countries on the continent predict similar public health outcomes in the near future.
Likewise, in Delhi, India, nearly 50% of the population experiences overweight or obesity, and one in three households has at least one diabetic member. These are shocking statistics rooted in imbalanced food environments similar to those in North America or Europe. And while there are many factors involved in this burgeoning epidemic, it is the concurrent erosion of local food culture and public health by the over-industrialization of diets that I find particularly troubling.
With a change in food environment come changes in eating habits and preferences, and those in turn ossify into a shared lifestyle that can put whole populations on a trajectory toward diet-related disease.
Moreover, and perhaps of even more significance, this process erases the traditions and history of plant-rich food cultures to such a degree that, within just a generation or two, they are all but forgotten.
For example, as a second generation Filipino-American, I was only exposed to cultural foods that were westernized or most agreeable to the western palate; white rice, processed pork products, refined wheat rolls, and chicken adobo come to mind. However, in a time preceding the rise of fast food, and in a place largely naive to industrialized agriculture, my grandparents grew up eating an astounding diversity of local produce, including many tropical fruits, vegetables, beans, and leafy greens—many I’d never heard of.
In a phone call with my grandma, she waxed nostalgic about the fresh foods of her youth, which she spent on her family’s farm. She spoke of the abundance of tropical fruit trees, like mango, guava, and pineapple, and she remarked on the variety of other wild fruits that grew in her remote village. Daily meals consisted of rice, often a mixture of white and brown; legumes of all sorts, especially black beans and black-eyed peas; vegetables like okra, eggplant, tomato, sweet potato, and winged beans; and many different kinds of leaves, including malunggay, kangkong, ampalaya leaves, pitsay, and tomato leaves. These represent just a small sampling of the diverse plant-based foods my grandma grew up eating. Meat, poultry, eggs, and goat milk were consumed rarely—together, maybe a few times a month. As is typical of many food cultures, animal products were primarily used as flavoring agents. In Filipino cuisine, for example, fish sauce and sardines add saltiness and umami to many dishes.
My grandpa, who grew up in a larger coastal city quite different from my grandma’s mountain village, ate a nonetheless similar diet consisting mostly of rice, vegetables, and beans. Because of their proximity to the water, his family could eat a little fish on a daily basis, too. I asked him to name the foods he remembers most from childhood, and he recalled vegetables like beets, string beans, and bok choy; monggo (mung) beans; star fruit and citrus fruits like calamansi; macapuno (young coconut); and grains like wheat and corn. He also recalled eating plenty of bean thread noodles called sotanghon, which are often used in soups. Meat other than fish was typically reserved for holidays, and milk products in the form of evaporated or condensed varieties were eaten sparingly.
Contrast these “historical” accounts of the Filipino diet with contemporary foods from the Philippines’ most beloved fast food restaurant, Jollibee. The franchise operates around 1,000 locations in the Philippines, and its most popular items include fried chicken, hamburgers, and spaghetti with sugary marinara and sliced hot dogs.
Jian DeLeon, a Filipino expat living in the United States, remarked that Jollibee’s food “captures the Philippine palate perfectly” and that the franchise has become “a symbol of the Philippines itself.”
DeLeon’s comment illustrates the extent to which health-promoting food traditions have been rapidly degraded by the westernizing forces of the global food industry. In my opinion, it is entirely wrongheaded to claim that a fast-food corporation selling largely American-origin foods is an appropriate stand-in not just for Filipino cuisine, but for the Philippines as a whole.
It’s clear that perceptions of our food culture have been warped by the lens of western sensibilities, and it’s led to a cultural amnesia that obscures our history of traditional, plant-rich food ways that some Filipinos still practice today.
Yet, there may be a kernel of truth to DeLeon’s remarks. A 2018 Statista poll showed that 60% of Filipinos consume fast food one or more times per week, and around 15% of the population eats fast food four or more times per week. Likewise, the Philippines’ rates of overweight and obesity have grown in tandem with its rates of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes—now among the country’s leading causes of death.
Even closer to home for many Americans, perhaps the most egregious example of food culture erasure is that suffered by the many indigenous groups of North America. Unsurprisingly yet tragically, this segment of the population is plagued by the most dire health circumstances of any other racial or ethnic group in the United States. Fully three-quarters of all American Indian and Native Alaskan adults are obese or overweight, and they experience rates of heart disease twice that of the general population!
However, these shocking rates of chronic, diet-related disease have only developed within just the last few generations as the American Indian diet became increasingly saturated with canned meats, sugary beverages, cheese products, and other ultraprocessed foods. Of course, this wasn’t the result of a willful rejection of traditional foods. Rather, it was due to the losses of ancestral lands and the ability to practice traditional farming and food-gathering, exacerbated by the influx of convenience stores and lack of grocery stores on reservations.
Compare this corporate-colonized diet to the traditional foodways of Native Americans. Although every tribe had its own unique approach to food and nutrition, many indigenous peoples—like the Choctaw, Cherokee, and Hopi—consumed diets largely based on corn, beans, squash, and a multitude of cultivated and wild vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds.
Historical accounts and nostalgic anecdotes aside, none of this is to say that there is no value in industry, global trade, or technology or that American food culture has nothing positive to contribute to a gastronomy of health. And just because something is “ancient” or “natural” or “traditional” doesn’t mean it’s optimal or relevant today. I am typically not one to blindly celebrate traditions for their own sake, but as a nutrition scientist and public health advocate, it’s impossible to overlook the connections among the domination of an aggressive, profit-driven food industry, the loss of meaningful, plant-rich food cultures, and the global epidemic of diet-related disease.
The systems-level forces eroding both our health and the wisdom of our plant-rich food cultures must ultimately be met with systems-level changes—and those will entail much more than a handful of people adopting their ancestors’ diets. Nevertheless, individuals and communities have much to gain from rediscovering the wiser aspects of traditional ways of eating that support good health and cultural awareness. And, at their best, they can inspire alternatives to the rapacious, profit-driven food system that continues to spread diet-related disease to all corners of the planet.
Madeline is the Institutional Outreach and Support Manager at Balanced. She holds a B.S. and M.S. in Nutrition from the Univ. of Texas and Tufts, respectively. As a nutrition expert, she advocates for more plant-based dining options in critical institutions with the aim of building healthier food environments and fostering better public health outcomes. You can reach her here: firstname.lastname@example.org
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