Enjoy your Culture's Foods (without a side of guilt!)
For today’s blog, we are going to elaborate on a recent Instagram post that went up on my page. The text of the post says: I’m so sorry if you’ve been made to feel like you can’t enjoy your culture's food during the holidays (or anytime really) because it’s “unhealthy”. And I really truly am so sorry if this is something you’ve ever experienced. It seemed important to share this sentiment as we enter this time of year and to speak about it in a bit more detail on the blog.
Did you know that our bodies are actually better able to absorb nutrients from our food when we are eating something we enjoy? Take this study for example, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, which looked at two groups - a group of Thai women and a group of Swedish women, and collected nutrient absorption data from both. Both groups were fed a Thai dish (rice and vegetables seasoned with chili paste, fish sauce and coconut cream), which the Swedish women found to be overly spicy for their palates. The Thai women however who enjoyed the dish were found to absorb significantly more iron from the meal compared to their Swedish study counterpart. Next, the researchers put the same Thai meal into a high-speed blender, to form an unappetizing paste, which caused iron absorption to fall 70% on average for the Thai group.
So what can we learn from this? Well for starters it’s a great reminder that the sensory details of food (taste, texture, appearance, etc) are important aspects of the meal. Digestion starts as early as in our mouths when amylase (a starch digesting enzyme) is secreted from our salivary glands. So if we like what we see and smell when we sit down to a meal this can be a good instruction for the digestive system to start preparing!
What this also suggests is that eating cultural or ethnic foods from our heritage is important too, for many reasons. Pulling in the principle of Gentle Nutrition from Intuitive Eating can help with this. For example, if eating white rice is something that you grew up doing with your family, switching to brown rice because it’s “healthier” (please take notice of the quotations around healthier as this is a very subjective term), may not actually help you even absorb more nutrients from your food. Many cultural foods are vilified through diet culture, which is inaccurate and unhelpful. If you are interested in learning more about this topic, this podcast with Rachael Hartley, RD, Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor, and author is a great resource to start with.
There is also the simple fact that food is so much more than just the sum of its parts. Food is nostalgic, sentimental, and meaningful far beyond the vitamins and minerals that it may or may not provide to us. So bake the cookies you used to make with your grandmother, enjoy the latkes your aunt has perfected over the years or bring a traditional Kwanzaa dish to your holiday party.
So for this holiday season (and year round), here is your permission slip to eat the food you enjoy. Celebrate your culture through the food you grew up eating. And no, you do not need to swap out ingredients to make anything “healthier” if you and your loved ones can enjoy it just the way it is!*
Happy early Thanksgiving! Until next time!