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 Diets: Cultural Diets  
In my recent quest for books that deal with the different types of diets and dietary patterns of the many and varying cultures around the globe, I have found very little contemporary information. I would like to see more research into cultural diets, especially their relationship to diseases within a culture so that we can attain a more global knowledge of diet and health. Here I will share with you my knowledge of these diets and some theories as to their strengths and weaknesses, related deficiency problems, and supportive nutrients that might make them more complete. Obviously I cannot discuss each and every culture around the world; that would require a whole book in itself (which I hope someone will write). But I will dicuss some commonly encountered and intriguing “ethnic” diets. Please realize that my nutritional portrayals will be rather broad and generalized, because even within each country a diet may vary greatly from north to south or from province to province based on the climate, local nationalities living within that region, and available foods. For example, in China, the northern provinces tend toward a diet containing contains spicier foods, more meat products, and more wheat, than in the southern provinces, where a milder diet is consumed with more rice, greens and other vegetables, special fruits, and generally less meat. Also, within each nation, the diet of poorer people is usually healthier than that of the middle or wealthier classes. Rather than the richer diet of affluence, which may include more meat, dairy foods, coffee, and sugar, the poorer rural populations (the city poor may consume highly refined and malnourished diet) still consume the more traditional and natural foods—local grains, vegetables, and fruits—in a generally healthy balance. This factor is less apparent in the United States where the poor quality and refined foods so readily available in our local stores and supermarkets are accessible to nearly the entire population. Happily though, in most cultures there is an improved nutritional awareness with a return, even in the affluent population, to a more wholesome, balanced, and natural diet. Let us hope that this continues.

Western Diets

The "Western" diet is that of the Westernized cultures (not the cowboy diet), including many European countries, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, as well as the United States. Although the diets of these cultures are all similar, I will first take on the current American diet.

Many of the concerns about this North American diet and the problems that arise from its consumption also plague other Westernized countries. Many European populations eat a diet similar to the American one, though shaped around their basic cultural practices; those “down under” in Australia and New Zealand probably consume even more meat and milk products than we do in the United States. Most have a high intake of red meat and fat and a very high sodium intake, as well as regular alcohol use. The meat consumption rates in New Zealand and Australia, the Scandinavian countries, as well as some South American countries, such as Argentina and Venezuela, are among the highest in the world. The incidence of the diseases generated by this food component correlates with its intake. Many Europeans consume less meat and fats but sometimes more sugar, alcohol, and tobacco, which all generate their own diseases.

The Western dietary influence affects many cultures. Technological advances can bring benefits to everyone, but sometimes the time-saving, mass-processing preservation of food is not in the best interest of nutrition. People of all cultures can be influenced by sweeter or saltier foods or new and different foods altogether. We all like change, especially if it appears to be a “step up.” But often it isn’t (see previous discussion of Industrialized Diet). Eating refined flour or sugar products may be all right occasionally, but the natural, wholesome and homemade foods are better. And whether these refined foods are tastier, easier to chew, or a status symbol, when they replace the basic staples of the diet, that is when trouble may begin.

North American
Though the North American diet (South Americans have a very different diet) varies regionally and culturally, I will focus here on the common trends that cross over and influence so much of the population. The Canadian diet, in my understanding, is very similar to that of the United States. Diet-linked diseases that are common in both countries similarly affect immigrants, even though those diseases may be rare in their native lands. This has been demonstrated in studies of the incidence of breast cancer among Japanese women living in the United States, of colon cancer among Asians, and of diabetes.

All the factors that were discussed in the Industrialized Diet apply particularly to the American diet, which has been most affected by technology in our food industry. The evolution in the tastes of the average food consumer of toDay has involved a significant desensitization to the natural flavors in food. The modern consumer is attracted to the rich taste of fatty meats and fried oily foods, salty and sugary snacks, artificial flavorings and additives, and coffee, colas, and other stimulating soda pops. To speak of the refined food diet is actually a contradiction in terms, as this does not represent a “refined” taste at all, but taste buds that need to be knocked with a sledge hammer to wake up. Many nutritionists consider those refined flour products such as breads, pastries, and doughnuts and the refined sugary goodies from cereals to sodas as hardly “foods” at all. It is difficult for people used to these “processed” foods to experience much enjoyment or psychological satisfaction from a simple meal of rice and vegetables, with or without some animal protein. The diet of our culture has become an “anticultural” diet, definitely not one that our ancestors would have approved.

Nutritional Problems associated Problems and Diseases correlated
with the Standard American Dietwith the Standard American Diet
    High calorie
    Low nutrient
    Tooth Decay
    Low fiber
    High fat
    Coronary artery disease
    Excess saturated fat
    High blood pressure
    Excess hydrogenated oils
    Heart attacks
    High protein
    Excess salt
    Vascular insufficiency
    Excess sugar
    Excess alcohol
    Breast cancer
    Excess milk foods
    Colon cancer
    Excess meats
    Prostate cancer
    High vitamin D
    Other cancers
    Excess phosphorus
    Behavior problems/Crime

How processed the diet is varies according to the quantities of fast foods, junk foods, sweets, sodas, and other “dead” foods consumed. Teenagers can be the worst offenders, eating too much of these foods and very little of anything else. Some refined breads and pastas or occasional sodas, sweets, or fatty meats will not hurt most people, but when they become predominant in the diet, it is very poor nutrition. I believe that it is one of the greatest sins of our health care system that doctors so readily accept and support (often simply by not condemning) the industrial-age American diet. Many of the potential problems of our diet, such as the lack of fiber and excessive fat, sugar, and sodium, have been and will be discussed throughout this book. With awareness of and attention to these areas, we can make our diet a healthier one.

There are also some positive aspects of the American diet. There are many wonderful foods available to nourish us. We grow all types of grains, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and fruits and raise cattle and other animals for milk, eggs, and meats. (The main concern with all of these foods is the chemicals used in growing and raising them.) We can certainly choose most of our foods in their more nourishing untreated and unprocessed state. Another positive aspect is the growth patterns that our children develop from eating the typical protein- and calcium-rich diet. Our race is growing bigger and stronger with each generation. The average height of our population continues to rise. The downside of this is that how we learn to eat as young people affects our eating patterns throughout life. As children are usually much more active than adults, obesity and chronic disease result from eating this rich diet, high in protein and fats, throughout life.

With the change in our taste for foods that has occurred over the last ten decades, there has been a decrease in consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables and the complex carbohydrates, with an accompanying decrease in fiber intake, and an increase in consumption of salt, sugars, and fat. This eating pattern, with its overall increase in calories and decrease in nutrition, is associated with many chronic diseases, such as obesity, diabetes, atherosclerosis, cardiac disease, and a variety of cancers, as well as liver disease and nervous system problems from alcohol abuse.

More specifically, each of these potentially negative dietary choices contributes to specific pathogenic processes. First, the standard American diet provides less nutrition per calorie consumed than does our true cultural diet of natural foods. Our body needs a certain amount of nourishment to function. The high amounts of white sugar and refined flour foods in the current American diet provide useless calories with few nutrients. Therefore we require more food on this diet to obtain all our needed nutrients. This is a crucial aspect underlying one of America’s biggest problems, obesity. and its effect on other diseases, especially cardiovascular disease and many types of cancers.

The decreased consumption of vegetable and complex carbohydrates foods, means a lower intake of vitamins, minerals, and fiber. The lack of fiber has significant adverse effects on digestive function, which may lead to colon diseases such as diverticulitis and cancer. The decrease in nutrient intake resulting from an unbalanced diet with a lot of empty-calorie foods may lead to a wide variety of depletion and deficiency symptoms and diseases. This may occur in the diets of both the poor and the rich of our population.

(Excerpted from Staying Healthy with Nutrition ISBN: 1587611791)
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 About The Author
Elson Haas MDElson M. Haas, MD is founder & Director of the Preventive Medical Center of Marin (since 1984), an Integrated Health Care Facility in San Rafael, CA and author of many books on Health and Nutrition, including ...more
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