Why Eating Cultural Foods Can Promote Physical and Social Health for Latines, According to a Latina Dietitian

Photo: Getty Images/ mapodile
When you think of “healthy eating”, you may think of rainbow-colored meals or of the Mediterranean diet. And sure, colorful whole foods are full of phytonutrients, and the Mediterranean diet is linked to various health benefits, but those are not the only eating patterns that can support your health.

In fact, the second guideline of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans is: “Customize and enjoy nutrient-dense food and beverage choices to reflect personal preferences, cultural traditions, and budgetary considerations.”

Latin American cultural foods are often disregarded in popular portrayals of healthy eating patterns; yet, there is plenty of nutrition found in our cultural dishes. Unfortunately, many people—Latines and non-Latines alike—consider Latin American food to be unhealthy. Meanwhile, restricting your cultural foods can harm your social well-being—a consideration that’s often overlooked.

Experts In This Article

Latine foods are jam-packed with nutrition

For many, the stereotypical portrayals of a healthy diet don’t align with their preferences, culture, or budget. Yet, the dietary guidelines themselves acknowledge that cultural foods are a central part of healthy eating.

Traditional Latin American foods vary from country to country, but each country’s cuisine has sources of carbohydrates, fat, protein, fiber, and micronutrients—the foundations of a nutritious diet. In general, tortillas, white rice, plantains, beans, avocado, salsa, onions, garlic, peppers, corn, meat, and fish are just some of the many nutritious staple foods in Latin American cuisine.

Despite some Latine foods getting a bad rap—particularly for their carbohydrate or fat content—they can all fit into a healthy eating pattern. Nutrition doesn’t have to be so all-or-nothing.

For example, despite some mixed messaging about the health benefits of beans due to their carbohydrate content, particularly for people with diabetes, they are such a nutritious food and one that many Latines eat regularly. They are a good source of plant-based protein, prebiotics, fiber, and iron.

In fact, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend eating about 1.5–3 cups of peas, beans, and lentils per week. A 2011 study found that consuming ½ cup of pinto beans per day for eight weeks resulted in significant reductions in total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol—the “bad” kind of cholesterol—compared to a placebo. Therefore, the researchers concluded that consuming pinto beans could reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. Latines consume an especially high amount of beans, which is thought to play a role in their reduced risk of dying from things like heart disease and lung cancer compared to other racial and ethnic groups.

Furthermore, corn tortillas made from hominy are a good source of fiber, magnesium, zinc, and resistant starch; white rice and beans pair together to form a complete source of plant-based protein; and root vegetables common in many Latine cuisines—like yuca and batata—are not just a good source of carbs, but also fiber and potassium.

Many times the vegetables in Latine dishes are overlooked because they don’t take up their own compartment on a plate (like USDA’s MyPlate suggests). Yet, we regularly incorporate peppers, onions, garlic, and tomatoes in our dishes. Plus, Latin American countries have some of the most delicious and fresh fruits—think mangos, pineapples, and papaya. We enjoy lots of fresh fruit juices and smoothies made with these micronutrient-rich ingredients.

There are also lots of nutrient-dense plant foods we eat that people from other cultures may have simply not heard of. For example, tamarind is a brown fruit rich in fiber, iron, and potassium, and yautia is a root vegetable that’s high in potassium, fiber, and complex carbs. Just because they’re not front and center on Instagram’s #HealthyRecipes page doesn’t mean they’re not nutritious; it just means mainstream culture has more to learn.

Eating cultural foods supports social health, too

So many people from marginalized cultures feel they have to cut out their cultural foods to be healthy. It may stem from doctor’s recommendations or from simply not seeing their cultural foods represented in depictions of healthy meals in the media. They may come to fear these foods that mean so much to them.

Our cultural foods help connect us with our roots, our families, and ourselves. Sometimes emotional eating gets a bad rap, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with it. Eating cultural foods is one great example; we often have an emotional connection to them that uplifts us. That emotional piece doesn’t make it unhealthy! It may even support our emotional well-being.

Plus, restricting your cultural foods could isolate you from your family and friends. In Latine cultures, we often connect over food. Food is central to our family gatherings and our abuelas, or grandmothers, show their love through food. So, restricting these foods may negatively impact your social connections. On the other hand, celebrating your cultural foods could help you bond with loved ones through eating and even cooking together.

Making peace with your cultural foods may take time, particularly if you have deeply rooted beliefs that they’re “bad.” But it’s a journey well worth it. To kick start that journey, it may help to learn about the nutritional value of your cultural foods and to connect with the benefits they offer you socially, emotionally, and physically. It may also help to seek out support from dietitians you identify with who are committed to educating their communities on the value of their cultural foods. Many are active on social media and offer 1:1 nutrition counseling or group programs.

Final thoughts

There are plenty of reasons to celebrate your cultural foods; yet, our ideas of a “healthy diet” can be quite limited. Rather than eliminating your cultural foods in the name of health, consider learning about their nutritional value and appreciating their benefits for your social and emotional well-being, too.

Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.
  1. Winham, Donna M et al. “Pinto bean consumption reduces biomarkers for heart disease risk.” Journal of the American College of Nutrition vol. 26,3 (2007): 243-9. doi:10.1080/07315724.2007.10719607
  2. Young, Robert P, and Raewyn J Hopkins. “A review of the Hispanic paradox: time to spill the beans?.” European respiratory review : an official journal of the European Respiratory Society vol. 23,134 (2014): 439-49. doi:10.1183/09059180.00000814

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