Is Your Culture Making You Fat?
Who knew that what makes you feel full and satisfied comes from your culture?
A friend from Bangladesh once told me, “You could bring me two large pizzas, a burger and fries and I’ll eat the whole thing but still be hungry for my dinner because I consider Western food an appetizer! I won’t feel full until I have my curry and rice because that’s what I consider a meal.
How many of us (or our parents) feel the same way and don’t feel full until we had our bread, rice or pasta? I used to go out to yummy plant-based dinners with my mom then find her in the kitchen after eating bread. She didn’t feel “full” without it, no matter how much she ate, because she was so used to it.
Our culture shapes the way we eat and for many of us, it’s making us fat. From the time you’re a kid, you’re taught that a meal looks like a sandwich or a bowl of pasta. That’s enforced every time you go to a restaurant, where you’re brought a basket of bread to “appetize” you for your pizza.
Meals traditionally weren’t complete without a base of refined carbs, which is why Asians, Middle Easterners and Latin Americans often don’t feel satisfied without a bowl of rice, while Americans and Europeans need a few pieces of bread or pasta to feel full. Africans and those from the Caribbean are actually the best off because their carb sources are yams and plantains!
Though our reliance on carbs worked traditionally in society, it just ain’t cutitin’ it for us anymore. Carbs became the base of our plates historically because 1) physical labor was more common, 2) portions were much smaller 3) access to vegetables were not always readily available due to lack of refrigeration therefore carbs were often the only option, 4) meat was often too expensive.
Flash forward to today: our refined carb intake has rocketed up while our activity level has gone down. We fill up on carbs not only for energy, but also for momentary happiness. When we eat carbohydrates, our serotonin levels boost up, making us feel temporarily elated. So when we are stressed at the office, the easiest way to relax our minds is by drowning our faces in a bowl of noodles.
Though the Food Pyramid once recommended six to eleven servings of carbohydrates a day, those dandy recommendations left us obese and with trust issues. (You’ve been feeding us lies and carbs since childhood, USDA! How can we trust anyone again?!)
Food Pyramid Throughout the Years
Even India went from boasting the world’s oldest health system to having the highest number of diabetics in the world. People are passing up on traditional Ayurvedic meals and instead replacing fresh food with fast food. They’re working in a sedentary office, then eating heavy curries, large portions of rice, buttery bread and sugary sweets which are now readily available without the hard work that used to go into gathering the ingredients.
Much of what we consider is a meal is learned, which is why meals look so different around the world. Some families gather around carbs while others around meat (and a few of us are lucky enough for ours to gather around a bowl of salad!) But just because you grew up eating a certain way, doesn’t mean you have to continue.
Walking through a supermarket today versus a supermarket 20 years ago is a completely different experience. Heck, every time I go to the supermarket I’m still surprised by the new products! Now imagine how our parents feel. Older generations did not grow up with access to wide selections of meat alternatives such as tofu, tempeh or seitan, which is why they may not understand how veganism can be healthy. Stores at that time weren’t stocked with omega-3 filled chia or hemp seeds, nor were there aisles dedicated to non-dairy milk options like almond, soy, hemp or coconut milk. Even today, in many parts of the world, if you don’t eat animal products or starches, there’s little left to eat. That’s why when you tell your parents you’re going gluten-free vegan, they freak.
It’s important to explain to our caring parents that it’s possible to be healthy without eating the way they did growing up and the best way of convincing them is through the belly!
Show our steak-loving dad your mean blackened tofu recipe and challenge him to a meat-free cook-off.
Surprise your dairy-loving grandparents with vegan sweet potato brownies and only once they’ve complimented them unveil the true ingredients. Though people like us love food even more when it’s healthy, some people get turned off.
Though they may not be open to your new way of eating at first, it’s only because they care about you and are afraid you may not be healthy. Eating disorders are unfortunately common in our generation so often parents become worried that your change in eating habits may be a sign of a change in appetite, even though eating healthy does not mean you have an eating disorder.
With new food products and creative recipes coming out everyday, we can all change our diets, regardless of our eating culture. Just like you once learned that a meal is based around gluten or meat, you can unlearn it. Your head is not going to spin and you won’t fall over without animal protein and you won’t die without a piece of bread. Next time someone says “You’re just eating vegetables. You need some ‘real’ food,” explain to them that plant-based foods are the actual real foods!
By explaining your meals and cooking with them, not only will you ease their minds but you also may adjust their cultural conception of what “food” is. Perhaps your Vietnamese parents make noodles with soy sauce and pork for dinner every night, but you can surprise them with tofu or zucchini noodles with seitan and tamari sauce. They’ll see they aren’t compromising the flavor for health benefits and more importantly, how great they feel after the meal without the refined carbohydrates, sodium and meat.
Or maybe your Indian mom makes buttery curry and basmati rice whenever you come home and feels offended when you don’t want it. Bond with her by making some Indian Quinoa Curry. Even if she doesn’t love it, at least she’ll know that you still love your curry!
Or perhaps your Mexican family gets together on the weekends for tortillas stuffed with chicken, guacamole, sour cream and refried beans. Join them in the kitchen and show them your grain-free chia tortilla recipe and swap the sour cream with greek yogurt and the refried beans for boiled. Add spices and herbs like cumin, chili and cilantro to bump up the flavor. It may become your new household favorite!
We are lucky to be in a generation with so much knowledge readily available about what makes the human body healthy. We are blessed with access to healthy gluten-free, dairy-free, meat-free, organic foods that our parents could have never imagined. Let’s educate our families to spread healthy habits so we become the healthiest generation that’s ever existed – not the sickest.