Exploring the Connection Between Food, Culture and Health
Food Brings Us Together
Eating food is common to all of us. Everyday, we come by, choose, prepare, and eat food. This is a necessary part of life; however, food is so much more than a means of staying alive. Food brings people together. It is the center of holidays, celebrations, and events. Preparing and eating foods builds trust, relationships and community.
Our food choices, and preparation methods are influenced by many factors including our surroundings, our society, our finances, our access to food and our culture. In this way, Food is central to our identity as it represents our culture, history and upbringing.
Americans are lucky in that we are surrounded by a variety of cultures. Different cultures offer unique traditions, viewpoints and skills which beneficially contribute to society, especially in terms of health.
How Culture and Cultural Changes Influence Health:
As family’s immigrate to America from all over the world, their way of eating and preparing food remains central in keeping their culture alive in this new environment. However, as time goes on, those immigrating to America become adjusted to the new culture and adopt some American lifestyle habit. This process of adapting and adjusting to norms of a new cultural environment is referred to as acculturation.¹
Increased acculturation oftentimes leads to eating a more westernized diet. A Westernized diet is described as a diet high in sugar, saturated fat, and junk foods. There is also less consumption of whole grains, fruits, vegetables and fiber rich foods which have been shown to promote health and decrease risk for developing disease. One study investigated eating habit changes in students from Asia, after living in the U.S. Students reported increasing intake of salty and sweet foods. Although students ate out less often, fast food was consumed more often. This suggests that the further one might go from their native foodways, the more detrimental it might be to their overall health. ¹
Furthermore, one study discussed how the South Asian population living in America has increased risk for diabetes and heart disease as a result of regular sedentary behavior, and increased intake of Westernized food. Traditional South Asian diet includes fruits, vegetables, rice, soy food products and spices. With increased acculturation, food habits and lifestyle change. When cultural and healthy meals are substituted for a more Westernized diet, health may be compromised.²
Eating Habits and Dining Etiquette in Different Cultures:
The way food is eaten varies from culture to culture. Similarly, table manners differ from culture to culture. The way in which food is eaten is a symbolic representation of one's culture. Respectful travelers will be sure to familiarize themselves with dining etiquette before jumping on a plane to a new country. Below are a few examples of differences in eating habits and proper dining etiquette.
China, Korea and Japan:
Let’s consider chopsticks for example. Chopsticks are tools used for eating. The use of chopsticks originated from China and then spread to East Asia and in various locations around the world as Asian cuisine became more popular. Chopsticks are most commonly used in China, Korea and Japan, but although the standard use of chopsticks remains the same, small and meaningful differences exist in the chopsticks and the way they are used.³
Chopsticks used in China as meals are usually shared; therefore, wooden, longer and thicker chopsticks allow you to reach across the table and access a generous amount of a variety of food.³ In comparison, Japanese chopsticks are more pointed. This is useful in gutting out the bones as the Japanese diet is high in fish.⁴
Chopsticks are believed to offer health benefits by slowing people down, as much as 20 minutes per meal; therefore allowing them to feel fullness sooner and consume less food over all. Additionally, chopsticks are believed to improve cognition as learning how to use chopsticks improves motor function.³
Differences in dining etiquette exist between the West and Asian cultures. In the West, slurping is oftentimes viewed as rude. However, in Asia, slurping is seen as a compliment to the chef. Slurping shows that you are enjoying the food and you are showing the family and friends around you that you enjoy food.⁵
India and Parts of Africa:
Using hands to eat food is a common practice among these parts of the world. Good handwashing practices are always implemented before eating food. One interesting fact about these cultures is that the right hand only is used for eating food. This is because the purpose of the left hand is for personal hygiene; therefore, it is considered unclean. Additionally, in India, wasting food is considered disrespectful. Thus, it is important to eat everything on your plate.⁶
The way we choose, prepare and eat food is unique to us and represents our upbringing and culture. Food and traditions surrounding foods are symbolic of where we came from, our history and our past generations. Everyone has roots, and we can remember our roots through food. Additionally, it is necessary for individuals working in the field of dietetics to become competent in cultural differences among diverse populations. The food we recommend to our clients should be aligned with the cultural food preferences of the individuals we are serving.
Written by Helayne Speroni on behalf of Supriya Lal
Pan YL, Dixon Z, Himburg S, Huffman F. Asian students change their eating patterns after living in the United States. J Am Diet Assoc. 1999;99(1):54-7 doi: 10.1016/S0002-8223(99)00016-4.
Kanaya AM, Wassel CL, Mathur D, et al. Prevalence and correlates of diabetes in South Asian Indians in the United States: findings from the Metabolic Syndrome and Atherosclerosis in South Asians Living in America study and the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis.Metab Syndr Relat Disord. 2010;(2):157.
Wang EQ. Chopsticks; A Cultural and Culinary History. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press;2015.
Xu H, Wu H, Li X. Similarities and differences of Chinese and Japanese dietary etiquettes. Qingdao. 2019;1: 89-92 DOI: 10.25236/ecomhs.2019.019.
McWilliams M. Food & Communication; Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery. Great Britain: Oxford Symposium;2018.
Albala K. Food Cultures of the World Encyclopedia. Volume 2. Santa Barbra, California: ABC-CLIO;2011.