why "eating healthy" seems to exclude ethnic food

Grilled chicken with minimal seasoning; steamed broccoli; bland oatmeal. Since when did clean eating, a lifestyle considered to be the pinnacle of health, become so stripped of culture? It seems that food from all over the world seems to be left out of the conversation when we talk about health and wellness.

paleo chicken tikka masala

paleo chicken tikka masala


food is more than just fuel for our bodies.

Food represents our heritage, customs, and traditions. It can have a nostalgic quality to it, and the ability to transport us back “home,” wherever that may be. For so many people who have immigrated, food is a part—and sometimes the only part—of home that they can still enjoy in their daily lives. As someone who identifies as an Indian-American, eating foods that embrace my culture take me back to my childhood, my home, my family, a juxtaposition of two cultures colliding.

the wellness industry has perpetuated the idea that a Euro-centric diet is the only way to eat well.

Peruse through any “healthy living” content on the internet and social media, and you’ll notice that the recipes always seem to lack diversity — it’s the same stuff over and over, and it only tends to cater to one audience — one of privilege and Euro-centrism. Educating people about healthy eating shouldn't be about making “LifeHack” swaps to fit someone’s culture into a Euro-centric diet. Rather, it should be about understanding that different people and cultures eat in different ways — the way they cook; their practices around preparing and serving food; how they celebrate on special occasions — and to work towards living a healthy lifestyle are with all those things in mind.

additionally, excluding other cultures when we talk about healthy eating enforces the idea of “good” and “bad” foods.

Placing foods on a good-bad binary is counterproductive and perpetuates toxic ways of thinking about food. Additionally, this good/bad thinking also gives non-Eurocentric foods a bad rap. A common anecdote is someone ordering Chinese food to-go, and labeling themselves as being “bad” for doing so. But what they’re truly referring to is the Americanized, takeout version of Chinese food. After all, Asian food is not all noodles, MSG, and soy. Although there’s nothing wrong with these things, it isn’t representative of the variety of foods that Asian cuisine provides. Another example of this can be found in Indian cooking, which has been watered down to butter chicken and garlic naan, when in reality, Indian cuisine at its core exemplifies great Ayurvedic benefits. In fact, most culture’s dietary customs, at their core, include all the things we think of as staples of a nutritious diet—fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and heart-healthy fats—along with other foods (in moderation) that may be less nutritious but taste delicious.

To quote Tamara Melton, R.D, “if our only exposure to the way another culture eats is American restaurants serving that cuisine, we’re judging the healthfulness of a culture’s food based on an Americanized interpretation, which is quite limited, and often excludes, at the very least, a culture’s plant-based eating pattern.” not only does this preserve the idea that Euro-centric culture is superior to others, but it also enforces the good-versus-bad mindset that embodies the worst parts of diet culture.

For us to break this mindset, we need to embrace diversity and expand the idea of what healthy eating looks like. We need to take the time to learn about other cultures’ foods. That goes beyond just visiting our local breakfast taco joint in a gentrified neighborhood. If you live in an area with a large immigrant population, go visit the grocery stores and food markets in those neighborhoods. Learn what ingredients people cook with and talk to people who live in the area about how they prepare their meals. Eat out of your comfort zone. We can be the leaders in challenging the status quo of what healthy eating can look like.

vegan spinach coconut daal (lentil soup)

vegan spinach coconut daal (lentil soup)