Does Your Culture Determine What You Eat?
Comparing Chinese and American Diets
It’s a commonly held belief amongst people of western society that Chinese food is healthy, and indeed Chinese restaurants are extremely popular in the west. However, it’s a commonly held belief amongst Chinese people that most of the food being served in those restaurants isn’t Chinese.
Statistics support the belief that healthier diets are consumed in China. Diseases like colon, rectal and breast cancer, osteoporosis, type-2 Diabetes and heart disease are much less prevalent in China, particularly in rural areas, compared to the United States, where one third of deaths are caused by heart disease and one third of the population is obese (livestrong.com).
But, Chinese tourists eating in American Chinese restaurants would not find the cuisine very reminiscent of home, where their meals are comprised mainly of vegetables, whole grains, soy, fish and some poultry, with meat shavings used primarily for flavoring. Animal foods comprise only about 20% of traditional Chinese diets, but Chinese restaurants operating in America have to adapt to the much higher demand for meat and fried foods (medicinenet.com).
How a Culture’s Attitude towards Food Affects Nutrition
Examining cultural differences in diet comes down to more than knowing that pizza comes from Italy and sushi from Japan. This is because eating habits and meal scheduling, as well as cuisine varies from one culture to another.
For example, in Italy, France and Spain, people favor lighter meals for breakfast and dinner with the more sumptuous feast usually occurring at lunch time. This is in contrast to British and American culture, where breakfast, lunch and dinner are all equally likely to be heavy meal (ausport.gov.au).
The whole ethos around meals and the attitude to dining in general amongst different cultures is a significant factor in determining nutrition.
- European cultures encourage relaxation and conversation during meals, a waiting period between each course and, in Spain, a brief rest following lunch known as a siesta. Food scientists credit such an attitude with promoting healthier digestion.
- Smaller courses are a characteristic of meals in European and Asian cultures. A study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania determined that meals in France are on average 25% smaller then in America, and in the far East the custom is to share a course with the table, each individual dishing their portion into a bowl. The Okinawa region in Japan believes in hara hachi bu (eight parts out of 10), which refers to how full one should be when one stops eating. It’s hard to argue against such a mantra when Okinawans boast an average life expectancy of 82 years – the highest in the world (cnn.com).
- A focus on meal preparation in Mexican culture, as well as European and Asian cultures, where the art of preparing a meal requires significant investment, is credited with promoting healthier eating compared to the fast food culture of western society (mightystudents.com).
- Indian, Chinese and Thai cuisines are noted for their use of spices, which research indicates may have positive health effects. A study of type-2 diabetes patients found that half a teaspoon of cinnamon twice a day significantly reduced both blood sugar and cholesterol (cnn.com)
Such comparisons have drawn interest from food scientists, who believe that examining the link between health and diet across various cultures can provide valuable insight in the field of nutrition.