‘Old Ways’ Of Healthy Eating By Ethnic Group


Home-cooked holiday feasts aside, our eating patterns are trending in the wrong direction.

Over time, we’ve tended to go from cooking our own food to relying on more processed, packaged and non-perishable fare. Researchers say this slow transition, along with other factors, has resulted in an increasingly obese population, rife with heart disease, diabetes and other illnesses.

Oldways, a Cambridge non-profit that promotes healthy eating, wanted to help solve this problem. The group spearheaded a 20-year research project that put together a panel of experts — community health experts, culinary historians, nutrition scientists and even a representative from Whole Foods who has worked with the WIC program for needy women, infants and children — to collectively come up with a healthy eating model.

African Heritage Diet Pyramid (Courtesy of Oldways)

They came up with more than one. Indeed, the culmination of their work is several diets based on the traditional eating habits and foods of people from the Mediterranean, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean and Africa. There’s even a vegetarian food pyramid. The African Heritage Diet pyramid is the newest of them all — you can read more about it on NPR’s Shots Blog, and see the pyramid full size by clicking on the image to the right.

Each food pyramid comes with detailed lists that name specific kinds of foods for each level of the pyramid that are both healthy and traditional to that culture. Also at the base of every food pyramid: physical activity.

Some examples of the cultural-specific foods featured in the pyramids:

While anyone can follow any of the pyramids as a guideline for healthy eating, the pyramids were specifically designed to appeal to those ethnic groups. Instead of one standardized graphic with general rules, it’s an attempt to broach the subject of healthy eating with foods familiar to each ethnic group.

Given that philosophy, Oldways President Sara Baer-Sinnott said the pyramids — all of them — are necessary.

“We’ve gotten away from eating real foods. In terms of inspiring, no one size fits all, and it’s important to have lots of different options for people to follow, that fit within the (dietary) guidelines,” Baer-Sinnott said.

“Research has told us over and over again that traditional diets — the old ways of eating — are really much healthier than the way Americans eat. (For) almost every possible (chronic) disease that you could imagine, there’s a reduced risk through traditional diets.”

By “traditional,” Baer-Sinnott is referring to foods like beans, plants, nuts, vegetables and whole grains, as well as fish and healthy oils.

The federal government has been in the business of publishing dietary guidelines since 1916 (The Washington Post has a great timeline that walks you through the various diet models), but some in the nutritional science community put little weight on their recommendations. The latest healthy diet model from the Department of Agriculture is called My Plate, a graphic featuring four blocks of color representing fruits, grains, vegetables and protein, released earlier this year.

But according to Dr. Walter Willett, chairman of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard’s School of Public Health, My Plate, and its predecessor, the food pyramid, are not really the objective, science-driven guidelines they should be — thanks in part to extensive lobbying by the food industry.

“My Plate is actually pretty useless. For example, it says that we’re supposed to eat protein, but it doesn’t say what form of protein, and in fact that’s what really makes the most difference,” Dr. Willett said.

Dr. Willett served as a consultant in the development of the Oldways food pyramids, including the African Heritage Pyramid.

“The African Heritage Pyramid (gives) a lot more information, and I think the right information, in terms of long-term heath and well-being,” he said.

Readers, what’s your take on the diet-by-ethnic-group model? How does your meal today fit into it? Please respond in the comments below.


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  • m

    so um what if you aren’t any of those ethnicities..i think they’re leaving out a few major parts of the world here.

  • Ginette

    This is awesome! It shows people how to eat healthy, while eating the foods they know. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to cook a recipe that had an ingredient that I had no idea what it was. I see it as the same thing. I am more likely to cook, and then eat, foods to which I know. I see this as especially good for those coming to America from other countries or If I were to move somewhere. Now, the only issue is finding the foods in a unfamiliar place….

  • Richard Karpinski

    Nice idea, but so much dietary advice is crap that I won’t be pleased until this also has a good way to gather actual results like the Framingham study. That would be fine and would improve advice over time, albeit too slowly.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1010056277 Mary Cote Buetow

    Tobynsaunders…..diet is a very personal thing for most people.  Do your thing, I’ll do mine.  I’m grain free, low carb and it works for me.  I have blood sugar issues and eating vegan would make me very sick. 

    You shouldn’t “should” all over people.  :-)

  • Anonymous

    Part of the problem today is that not only are Americans eating more and more fatty & empty nutrition high calorie ,foods, but they are not physically working off the calories they consume.  Some of the traditional diets you described (and the examples were extremely simplistic) actually had lots of fat and calories in them, but in those traditional times, people were working very hard and burning off those calories.  In this day and age, we sit on our butts too much.  In most areas of our country, people don’t walk anymore; they drive cars even short distances.  We use machines to do so much work that we used to do by hand.  If the average person had to wash their clothes by hand, for instance, they’d work off a lot calories!  Our current lifestyle doesn’t include taking time to even make ‘traditional’ foods.  Instead of peeling tomatoes, chopping onions etc. to make pasta sauce, we open a jar.  In a recent book I read about this, the author suggested that if the average person had to make his/her own French fries from scratch (not even mentioning growing and harvesting the potatoes!), the effort involved would lead that person to eat a lot less of them!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=53300545 Karen Swain Streetman

    It is not racist! That’s ridiculous, are you racist when you have a hankering for sushi or mexican food? 

  • Rebecca Brink Knezevich

    By the way, people, this is RACIAL not RACIST.  No one’s discriminating here.

  • Rebecca Brink Knezevich

    So I guess people of Northern or Western European backgrounds don’t count or wouldn’t want to know?

  • theresa

    What’s the Irish old way of eating? Or the English? Genuinely curious.

  • Juan

    Okay, this is NOT racist. It’s not about “race”, it’s about culture. It recognizes the FACT that different cultural groups have adapted differently to different foods because, duh, they lived in different places. If that seems racist to you, you may have a problem.

    Having said that, I have issues with the way the pyramids are structured. Essentially, they seem to be copies of the basic American food pyramid but with “traditional” foods dropped into their respective slots. I’m a person from both a Latino and Mediterranean background who actually lives in a Mediterranean country and I can tell you these pyramid guidelines do NOT reflect the way people in these cultures actually eat! In the Mediterranean, for example, eggs, high fat dairy and fatty meats are an EVERYDAY thing. Olive oil is the principal added fat in the south, but butter and heavy cream are very common in the north and used abundantly in haute cuisine. Fresh fruit is NOT the preferred daily dessert and people do not usually limit their consumption of sweets and saturated fats. Alcohol is also not limited to specific amounts at specific times.

    If you want to get back to traditional foods and eating patterns, you’re better off talking to your grandparents!

  • Rebecca

    Why did you feel the need to respond the the comment saying this information was racist and then make a separate comment about the same thing? Dumb. 

  • http://profiles.google.com/deborrahc Deborrah Cooper

    No, its not. Racist means that a person is denied rights privileges or deemed to be somehow inferior based solely on their race. These eating plans recognize the cultural differences in cuisine and region of the world, celebrating and embracing said differences instead of trying to fit everyone into what White people think is the appropriate diet because its what THEY like. .

  • http://profiles.google.com/deborrahc Deborrah Cooper

    I’m familiar with this organization and think they are very much onto something. It is not racist, their suggestions are CULTURAL. Black and Asian and Latino people eat different foods than Europeans or American white folks eat. That is factual. I have some great friends born and raised right here in the U.S. that are Caucasian, and they’d never eaten yams/sweet potatoes, collard greens, catfish or home canned fruit until I introduced them to it. Black people NEVER got osteoporosis until they started eating the American diet because our diet is traditionally high in plant calcium and iron via kale, black eyed peas, collards, mustard greens, okra, etc.

    I think people should at least approach their suggestions with an open mind. Maybe eat this way 2-3 days per week and see how you feel the day after.

  • L.S

    Seriously? I know blood type can affect what kind of metabolism we have, but race? These  really send the wrong message.

    • Jerryk

      Yes L.S., Seriously.  Race really does make a difference.  The term you are what you eat is very true, and a thousand years ago, there was a very different availability of edible foods depending on which continent or region a person lived in.  The body becomes accustomed to those foods and develops the suitable enzyme library to break them down properly.  This is one of the reasons why many Chinese/East Asian have trouble digesting dairy or gluten.  Also why the American Indian population has such a problem with the metabolism of sugar.  These nutrients were not in their cultures distant heritage.

      These pyramids are not racist in any way.  They only address the facts of what is healthful for a given population based upon origin.  And If I, as a Caucasian American, have access to advanced nutritional guidelines, then I see if only fit that my fellow American brothers and sisters, though they may be of different ethnic heritage have the same access to an advanced nutritional guideline that fits their ethnic background.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_UXSCL33HYBE3YDO2B6U4SMSCAU judithg

    this is beyond racist. it is appalling. this better be a private organization and not  government funded.
    these people are off their minds. to prove it, they don’t know they are.
    one size does not fit all, says this america hater. actually, it does, if you are an american.

    • Guest

      3rd paragraph, it says non profit. So it’s a private company. 

      I don’t think they’re advocating people to only eat whatever food belongs to their race, as much as it’s saying we all have different body types after thousands of years of evolution. It makes sense that in a country full of grains that they can eat more grains, or a country with minimal dairy that the people are more prone to being lactose intolerant. Is it racist? Probably, it’s also semi logical. I hope they go about it in a different way, but at the same time a good way to combat obesity can be to use one’s own heritage as a weapon.

    • A concerned Student

      So you’re telling me that people had better conform or get out?  This does not hold true to one of the most basic principles outlined in our constitution.  Or do you not believe in or stand up for the engraved plaque at the statue of Liberty which reads:

      The New Colossus
      Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

      With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

      Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

      A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

      Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

      Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

      Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

      The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

      “Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

      With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

      Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

      The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

      Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

      I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

      Emma Lazarus, 1883

      Here on our doorstep we welcome all others, and breathing free also implies freedom to live and worship AND TO EAT whatever they choose.  These people are not “America Haters”.  I believe, along with many others I’m sure, that the “Oldways” group are embracing that which is the true spirit of American fellowship.  It would also be great if they were funded by the government.

      Did you know that the Oldways organization and studies are represented in college textbooks across America?  The Mediterranean diet as well as the other ethnic diet pyramids are represented in those books.  The only mention of “The American Diet”, is that of one which is unfortunately spreading to other countries and causing the new world epidemic of obesity.  These books are written by doctors of nutrition science.

      But if you still think that the American diet plan is good for everyone, why not just stuff yourself with cheeseburgers and fries!  Then we can all conform and be obese.

      ~ A concerned student of Nutrition and Dietetics.

  • Brian

    This is racist.

  • Tobynsaunders

    I don’t know where my food falls on the ethnic scale, but I don’t eat animals products. I’m in great shape & am not overweight… was that in the question? Anyway, it feels good to be healthy. For dinner I had boiled pasta with peanut butter, hot sauce & Earth Balance spread (carbs)… in a separate dish, eaten after that, I had boiled lentils with Earth Balance & sea salt (protein, amazingly good)… and now I’ll have some boiled veg & I’ll probably add peanut butter & hot sauce because I’m weird like that & it is a favorite of mine. You should go vegan!

  • http://twitter.com/LZXpress Learning ZoneXpress

    a fan of MyPlate – but I love what you’ve done with the variety of ethnic
    options and the Food Pyramid. Variety is the spice of life and the more healthy
    spice we can put in our diets, the better. We have a packet of ethnic food
    activities that might help tie the Food Pyramids into a classroom setting http://www.learningzonexpress.com/p-75-ethnic-food-stores-activity-packet.aspx

    a fan of MyPlate – but I love what you’ve done with the variety of ethnic
    options and the Food Pyramid. Variety is the spice of life and the more healthy
    spice we can put in our diets, the better. We have a packet of ethnic food
    activities that might help tie the Food Pyramids into a classroom setting http://www.learningzonexpress.com/p-75-ethnic-food-stores-activity-packet.aspx

  • Anonymous

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