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Ethnic eating traditions can pose health risks

By Hanna Rahman –

A combination of a poor diet and physical inactivity puts some ethnicities at greater risk of heart diseases, diabetes and other health problems. Research shows that overall, Asians are most at risk because of physical inactivity and dietary habits, followed by Middle Easterners and Americans.

Physical inactivity is considered the fourth leading health risk by the World Health Organization. While many factors play into this, recent studies point to evidence that ethnicity has an impact on physical activity of American youth and that differences in amount of physical activity among adults also can be impacted by ethnic background. Activity, or inactivity often can be traced back to eating habits and an increasing amount of research is looking into how culture can influence how people eat.

Kacie Lyding, a physical therapist in Tempe, suggests that different cultures may have different opinions about physical activity because of the way they were raised, the household culture and environment, and family history of physical activity. She also suggests that perceived “perfect body image” among different ethnicities can play a role. The perception of a healthy body may differ among ethnicities.

Manroop Kaur, a student researcher at ASU conducting research in the College of Health Solutions, said that ethnicity, culture and religion play a crucial role in dietary behaviors. “Our ethnic or cultural background sets a foundation for how we should typically eat. Various holidays and festivities involve certain types of foods, which may not be found in other cultures,” said Kaur.

Varying cultures focus on different food groups. For instance, an American diet often consists of processed foods, meat and few vegetables. A Mediterranean diet tends toward grains, vegetables and fish, and meat less often, compared to an Asian diet, where meat is eaten more often. An African diet also consists of fish, grains and vegetables, with meat in moderation. Although these diets meet the requirements for food groups, there is concern about how the food is prepared. Additions, including oil or flour, can tip the scale and turn a healthy base food into an unhealthy meal.

South Asian cuisine often uses a lot of flour, rice, spices and oil. Most of these ingredients are staples for South Asian cooking so it is not practical to replace them completely. However, it would be more nutritious to substitute regular flour with whole-wheat flour to provide more fiber.

“Instead of white rice, it would be better to eat brown rice and in moderation. Instead of roasting the spices in butter or ghee, using extra-virgin olive oil would be beneficial,” said Kaur.

Kaur herself is North Indian. She says that her cultural food is calorie dense, so she tries to not let it impact her daily meals. However, during holidays or religious gatherings, she indulges in her traditional foods.

Changing a regular diet even gradually can be a daunting task. A good first step might be changing meal times. “Small frequent meals are recommended for weight maintenance or weight loss. Eating 5-7 meals a day, each consisting of about 200-259 calories, would be better for metabolism compared to eating three meals a day consisting of 600 calories a day. Splitting meals up into smaller frequent meals reduces overall snacking during the day. Snacking is a major contributor of empty calories, which lead to weight gain,” said Kaur.

Ethnic foods are often more than just a familiar cuisine to those who eat them. They can be a comfort or connection to one’s culture and heritage. While it is not necessary or practical to replace meals entirely, researchers such as Kaur recommend minor changes and substitutions not only when cooking the food, but when deciding when to eat it. Simple changes in foods eaten by already at-risk ethnicities can have a positive long-term impact on health and disease prevention.


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