Bypassing the Bias of Cultural Dishes
A dietician challenges stereotypes against non-Western cuisines in the diet and wellness industry.
In modern-day wellness circles, “healthy” is often associated with Western cuisines. It also applies to trending dietary practices, from juice fasts to gluten-free and low-carb diets. The traditional American diet is predominantly at the center of these conversations, whether we’re focusing on what foods to put on — or take off — our plates. More often than not, foods from other parts of the world are not part of the discussion. In many scenarios, they are ostracized for not fitting into today’s “healthy” mold.
Within wellness circles, the bias toward cultural dishes stems directly from the systemic racism rooted in the American medical system and subsequently passed on, according to Dalina Soto, a Philadelphia-based registered dietician and founder of Your Latina Nutritionist.
“The education system is full of biases and stereotypes, and when you go into a dietetics career, much of the ‘cultural’ competency courses are confirming the biases that many already have about foods,” Soto tells rē•spin.
“Just because the people that write the books and do the research haven’t taken the time to actually look at the cuisines from a non-biased perspective, it doesn’t mean that our foods are bad,” says Soto, who cites a statistic that only six percent of all registered dieticians in the United States identify as Latinx. “It takes critical thinking skills to pull back and use the science we know as dietitians and apply it to our foods and ingredients.”
Through her work, Soto seeks to rē-frame food stereotypes, particularly when it comes to Latinx dishes. For example, instead of labeling them high in carbs, Soto reminds her clients that the carbs in question are healthful whole grains, such as corn and quinoa. And when fruit, a dietary staple in many Latinx cultures, comes under fire for its high sugar content, Soto points out via Instagram that it’s not only a privilege to have access to fresh produce. It also contains fiber and essential vitamins like C. Yet in today’s prevalent diet culture, consumers are conditioned to want to get their nutrition from powders and supplements versus a juicy orange or mango.
Understanding the connection between food, family, and health
Food is nourishment. We need it to function physically, mentally, and emotionally fully. But when we think about food, it’s often from a superficial perspective as physical nourishment rather than the role it plays on a cultural level.
For Soto, food is not simply just food. Instead, it’s rooted in family and community and helps form our connections to the world. “Food is more than just calories in and out. It is culture; it’s safety; it is love,” she explains. We pass on tradition and dishes, and without knowing it, we combine foods and elevate nutrition.”
Soto notes that our ancestors didn’t know how to understand our food choices at the levels we do today. They didn’t view food through the lens of research. They relied on experience to understand why some dishes would “work” and others “healed.” Today, for example, we can use science to show how the combination of beans and white rice combines a complete protein with fiber and iron for a balanced meal.
“They knew that it fed them and made them feel good,” Soto says. “Meals bring us together and create community. Humans are meant to be in community, not the individualistic society the United States breeds.”
Dismantling the perception of cultural foods
Despite the discreditation of cultural foods in popular wellness circles, they form the basis of an entirely different realm of well-rounded diets for the American consumer willing to look past the biases.
For Soto, two of her favorite cultural ingredients that act as a “vehicle to add nutrition” are rice and beans. Her own personal combination? A fried egg, beans, rice, and avocado sprinkled with sriracha and Everything But The Bagel seasoning. She explains, “With the complete protein and fiber already there, you can add any other protein, veggie, topping, or sauce to make it to your liking.”
When approaching an expanded worldview of what wellness can encompass, Soto emphasizes the importance of looking at health from a nuanced view rather than seeing the black-and-white perspective we are often presented with. She says, “Health does not live in the all-or-nothing. Health lives in you being nourished, mentally and physically. It’s not fearing calories; it’s being able to have access to food and variety.”