One question I often get asked in interviews about the Mediterranean diet – or any of the other traditional diet pyramids Oldways developed (Asian, Latin American, African Heritage – is “how can you put Greek food and Moroccan dishes under the same Mediterranean diet pyramid?” Or, “Japanese cuisine is so very different from the food in India, why is there only one Asian diet pyramid?”
Here’s why China, Ghana, Mexico and Italy have more in common than you might think. They all share the following characteristics:
- Focus on plant foods.
- Eating together and other positive lifestyle attributes.
- Cultural relevance.
Plant-Based Cultural Models for Healthy Eating
Traditional diets around the world are plant-based cultural models for healthy eating. The eating pattern in China is not unlike the one in Mexico or Ghana or Greece. Each meal is based on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, tubers, nuts and seeds, healthy plant oils and herbs and spices. Fish, seafood and animal foods are smaller additions.
You need only look at the base of each of Oldways Heritage Pyramids (Mediterranean, Asian, Latin American, African Heritage) to see the similarities: a lush variety of plant foods that dominate these cultural models for healthy eating. A closer look also reveals that many of these plant foods are not the same. These similarities and differences make what’s on the plate both universal and unique.
(Courtesy of Oldways)
The differences lie in the what – the actual fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, tubers, nuts and seeds, herbs and spices used – as well as the in the how – that’s the preparations. Animal foods are consumed less often and in smaller quantities. This is in line with the 2019 EAT Lancet Report’s recommendation to consume 50% less red meat and sugar for human health and health of the planet.
Food Similarities Around the World
Real world examples from around the globe drive home the similarities in the food and how they are prepared. Take, for example, these three universal dishes:
- Rice and beans.
Many cultures have preparations for porridge and rice and beans that make use of the foods that are indigenous to particular locations. It’s the same with flatbreads, which often feature local produce, whole grains, and herbs and spices.
Porridge is an easy dish to make. Basically, porridge is a grain, preferably a whole grain, boiled and simmered in a liquid (such as milk, water or stock). Most familiar to Americans is oatmeal, a porridge made with oats. Other whole grains are commonly transformed into this ultimate comfort food in other countries. They can be savory or sweet, and can feature many toppings and spices.
In Asia, for example, congee is a traditional breakfast food that’s also perfect for a main or a side dish. Congee is made by boiling rice in water and letting it simmer; the difference from making rice is the amount of liquid. For congee, it’s three- or four-fold the amount used to make rice.The resulting porridge can be flavored with different toppings like vegetables, seafood, or egg and a variety of herbs and spices, depending upon the region. Adding a protein or vegetables turns congee into a main dish.
Sound like Italian risotto? Yes, congee and risotto have much in common. Rice, liquid, time (although not as much stirring is required with congee as it is with risotto), and anything can be added to both.
Beyond rice is a world of whole grains waiting to become a porridge. Similar to Italian polenta, grits are a southern U.S. version of porridge made by boiling cornmeal and flavoring with cheese, butter and milk. In the South, cooks add all sorts of flavors and food to grits, including seafood. Although grits are known as a southern dish, a version of mashed corn was a common food of Indigenous Peoples in the U.S., as corn was a dominant crop in North America.
Other global porridges include
- Hawaiian poi, made by smashing the plant stem of the taro plant and cooking with water.
- Upma, an Indian and Sri-Lankan dish made with dry semolina or rice flour, cooked into a thick porridge.
- Ethiopian genfo, made by boiling water and dry-roasted barley flour.
- Kasha in Russia and Eastern Europe, which is boiled buckwheat and water or milk.
- Peruvian quinoa porridge, made by boiling quinoa and water and sometimes even adding another whole grain, amaranth
- Lakh, a millet porridge in West Africa, is a common Senegalese breakfast.
- In South Africa, pap is a porridge made with ground maize.
- Millett porridge in China is a traditional healing food, especially for postpartum and digestive health.
Rice and Beans
A second example of the similarities among different cultural models for healthy eating is another comfort food: rice and beans. Cultures around the world enjoy rice and beans as standard fare. Pasta fagioli or minestrone in the Mediterranean. Dal with rice in India. Jollof rice with black-eyed peas in West Africa. Black beans and rice in Brazil. Brown rice and red beans in the Caribbean. Chinese rice with mung beans in China. Hoppin’ John – black-eyed peas and rice – in the Carolinas and other southern states. The combinations are endless.
The combination of rice and beans is also incredibly healthy. The beans provide plant-based protein, which we need more of as we try to reach the EAT Lancet 2050 sustainability goals. Beans are also packed with fiber, a nutrient that most Americans don’t get enough of.
“Fiber acts as a prebiotic, meaning that it feeds the friendly bacteria in our gut that keep us healthy and prevent disease,” explains Kelly Toups, registered dietitian and the director of nutrition at Oldways. “Fiber also keeps us full (to prevent overeating), helps regulate our digestive system and can reduce our blood sugar response to a meal.”
Further, beans have a number of antioxidants that protect cells from damage. Add brown rice, and it’s even healthier.
Flatbreads also point to the similarities in traditional diets around the world. In their book “Flatbreads and Flavors,” Naomi Duguid and Jeffrey Alford write that “flatbreads are the world’s oldest breads… The tradition of making flatbreads has developed simultaneously almost everywhere there is a perennial supply of grain… Flatbreads are simple and straightforward to prepare and to eat, they are nourishing and they make efficient use of locally available food resources.”
At Oldways, we were so taken with the concept of flatbreads that we asked Naomi and Jeffrey for permission to use their book as a basis for our first cooking and nutrition curriculum: High Five. Its lessons focus on flatbreads and their local accompaniments from cultures east to west, north to south.
These flatbreads, which can be prepared on a stovetop, include:
- Vietnam’s rice paper wraps, filled with herbs, lettuce and vegetables, dipped in a fish sauce.
- Chapatti and dal fry from India and Nepal, a soft whole wheat bread made in a skillet, paired with dal (legume, bean, lentil or split pea), yogurt and a chutney sauce.
- From Scandinavia, lefse, a bread made with potatoes, topped by cheese and jam.
- Chinese Sichuan coiled and flavored bread with peanut sauce.
- Mediterranean tomato bread traditions – pa amb tomaquet from Spain, Italian bruschetta and Greek dakos (barley rusk with tomatoes, feta and olive oil).
- Eastern Mediterranean pita bread with chickpea salad and fattoush, a salad that includes tomatoes, cucumbers, toasted bread.
- Mexican corn tortillas with salsa and black beans.
The common denominators are a flat bread, local ingredients and easy preparation. The differences are the type of grain used and how the flatbread is prepared, and the local foods and ingredients that complete the dish.
It’s also important to recognize that there is more than the foods and method of preparation that make cultural models for healthy eating – heritage diets – more similar than different.
Lifestyle as Part of Healthy Eating
Lifestyle attributes such as physical activity and movement, eating regularly with family and friends, cooking together, gardening, dancing, sports and celebrations around food are key ingredients of healthy lifestyles and traditional diets around the world.
Cell phones, television and computer screens don’t have seats at the dinner table; rather it’s a time to enjoy family and friends and learn from one another. Movement of any kind, whether it’s running, playing soccer, walking or dancing is an equal partner to healthy eating.
The Importance of Tradition
Finally, religious, cultural and historic traditions and habits play a role in cultural models for healthy eating around the world. Traditions may be different in Korea from those in Venezuela, Senegal or France; nevertheless, these traditions and habits influence what and how we eat.
Religious traditions influence how, when and if meat is consumed, religious traditions and holidays dictate what’s eaten and when. Italians eat pasta (as a small course) differently than Americans (a larger main dish).
Cooking with extra virgin olive oil is a tradition in the Mediterranean, while Asian cooking and African heritage dishes require different and lower amounts of healthy fats. Cheese is more prominent in cooking and eating in Europe and Latin America than it is in Asia or Africa. It’s the agriculture, the religious and cultural traditions that have defined these differences.
How to Eat Well by Incorporating These Patterns Into Your Diet
- Use heritage diets as a model for daily cooking, eating and dining out. Oldways founder K. Dun Gifford used to say, “eat like a Mediterranean two meals a week, eat as they might in Asia two meals a week, eat Latin American-style two meals a week and the same for African heritage foods.” Visualizing these different heritage diets helps to make your menus more interesting, delicious, and healthy.
- Add dishes like porridge, rice and beans and flatbreads to your weekly rotation of dishes and meals. And vary the cultural flavors each week. They’re all great comfort foods.
- Eat with family and friends without bringing your telephone, laptop or tablet to the table.
- Move. Walk, run, dance, play sports. Making time for physical activity is key.
What Brings Us Together
At the end of the day, these differences and similarities also have the potential to bring us all together. As we work toward more understanding of others’ cultures and traditions, food is a window to cultural diversity.
Mark Bittman recently said in an interview, “to the extent we can preserve our culinary traditions, and appreciate others’ culinary traditions, we are going to be eating better.”
At Oldways, we agree with Bittman and think it’s possible to go one step further. By honoring cultural differences in eating, the healthier, happier and more connected we will be – an important step toward individual and collective cultural humility.