Like everything else, nutrition has a “month.” While most years I feel like the chosen theme is ho-hum, this year’s National Nutrition Month theme is one I can actually embrace: “Personalize Your Plate.” It invites you to create nutritious meals to meet your cultural and personal food preferences, rather than subscribing to the binary, black-or-white, all-or-nothing thinking of “eat this, not that.”
That’s important for a few reasons. First, scientifically speaking, there’s no one way of eating that’s right for everyone. There are many eating patterns that have scientific evidence to back their healthfulness. Notably, these include the Mediterranean diet, the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet, the Nordic diet, and various plant-based eating patterns.
Second, nutrition recommendations have historically been very Eurocentric — aka “white people food” — and there is a very gradual shift away from that trend occurring. Cultural diversity is a good thing, in life and in food. One source of diverse examples of health-promoting eating patterns is the book “The Blue Zones,” in which author Dan Buettner looks at the secrets of the longest-lived people from several locations around the world, which includes some very different ways of eating. (Spoiler alert: The secrets aren’t all about the food — social connection and a sense of purpose are other important contributors to health.)
The aforementioned examples can offer a useful dietary template or blueprint if that’s useful to you, but a healthful, nutritious, satisfying diet doesn’t have to have a label. It also doesn’t have to be perfect, but that can be a hard belief to shake. When I assess my new clients’ food attitudes and rules, the answer to the question, “Do you feel like you need to eat perfectly to be a healthy eater?” is almost always “yes,” even though an obsession with eating “perfectly” is unhealthy in its own right.
The recently released 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans expand on the idea that one plate doesn’t fit all. They encourage customizing nutritious food choices to reflect personal preferences, cultural traditions and budget needs. Recommendations are for food groups and subgroups — not specific foods and beverages — allowing for flexibility. For example, broccoli, collards and taro leaves all count as dark green vegetables, and breadfruit, cassava and potatoes all count as starchy vegetables. And vegetables can be fresh frozen or canned, and raw or cooked.
Looking to expand your definition of what it means to eat “healthy” by trying new flavors and foods? In Seattle, we’re fortunate to have access to globally and culturally diverse ingredients from shops such as World Spice Merchants, MarketSpice, The Souk, Big John’s PFI, Goodies Mediterranean Market and Uwajimaya.
For inspiration, Oldways (oldwayspt.org) is a great resource, with information about and recipes from several traditional, culturally diverse eating patterns, including the Mediterranean diet, the African heritage diet, the Latin American heritage diet and the Asian heritage diet as well as vegetarian and vegan diets. If you prefer a good cookbook, here are some I’ve been enjoying cooking from:
- “Jubilee: Recipes from Two Centuries of African American Cooking” by Toni Tipton-Martin
- “In Pursuit of Flavor” by Edna Lewis
- “In Bibi’s Kitchen: The Recipes and Stories of Grandmothers from the Eight African Countries that Touch the Indian Ocean” by Hawa Hassan and Julia Turshen
- “Gran Cocina Latina: The Food of Latin America” by Maricel Presilla
- “The Complete Indian Regional Cookbook” by Mridula Baljekar
- “The Saffron Tales: Recipes from the Persian Kitchen” by Yasmin Khan
- “The Pho Cookbook” by Andrea Nguyen