White rice, braised pork with hard boiled egg, and fresh cucumber. I can clearly recall the traditional Vietnamese dish my mom would pack for me to bring for lunch at school. Instead of comfortably diving in to enjoy my food, I sluggishly open my Tupperware container and slowly eat as I watch my friends around me devour their chips and sandwiches. This was my first encounter with the issue of food and culture.

Growing up, I've always felt embarrassed about showing or eating my own culture's food in front of others because I was afraid it was "too different from the norm," or "strange looking" compared to everyone else's. As I reflect back on the past, I find myself becoming more comfortable with the idea of cultural diversity in food, but society's standards of what is considered "healthy" and "not healthy" leave me to ponder where traditional cultural dishes fit into this definition of "healthy eating."  

The Google Search

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When you embark on a health and wellness journey and first do a google search of "healthy food" online, photos of leafy greens, fruits, lean protein, and whole grains never fail to fill your screen. When you type in "healthy food recipes," a lot of plates with grilled chicken, roasted veggies, and salads come up, but traditional dishes from other cultures rarely ever appear.  When I ask myself why society has led us to associate a healthy plate of food with sweet potatoes, grilled chicken, and veggies instead of the Vietnamese vegetarian rice noodles my aunt makes, I do not know the answer. However, I can make the argument that traditional dishes from other cultures around the world all embrace the staples of a nutritious diet—fruit, vegetables, grains, and protein—yet, they are often underrepresented because of lack of education and the Americanization of these cultural foods. 

What Does "Healthy Eating" Really Mean?

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According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and CDC, a healthy eating plan consists of fruits, vegetables, lean protein, and is low in saturated fat and cholesterol. So when we do a google search of "healthy eating," it is correct to see images of leafy greens, fruit, and whole grains; however, traditional dishes from Asia, Mexico, South America, Africa, and Europe can also be considered "healthy."

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The issue is not within the definition of "healthy eating," but rather in the Americanization of such cultural dishes. When individuals classify Chinese food as their "treat meal" or "comfort dish," they are talking of the Americanized orange chicken, greasy chow mien, and honey-walnut shrimp. This lack of cultural representation in the health and wellness industry can lead the individual of X, Y, or Z background to feel guilt around eating their own culture's dish when they are trying to eat "healthier."  Their bowl of Mexican beans and rice or plate of Japanese sushi makes them feel like they are eating "unhealthily," but the reality is that their meal consists of protein, complex carbohydrates, healthy fats, and vegetables, but is just prepared in a different way.

How Can We Fix Society's Definition of Healthy Eating? 

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Food is fuel, food is medicine, and food is culture. Food and culture are both considered to be broad terms on their own, but when combined they can be associated with identity, nostalgia, and memories. It can be difficult to face the Americanized versions of certain traditional dishes, but it is important to stay rooted and grounded in your own cultural background.

Just as your own culture makes you unique as an individual, the foods from your own culture also bring diversity to the human palate. Next time you feel the urge to label a cultural dish as "unhealthy," ask yourself if you are referring to the Americanized or traditional version. Start with the basic credible definition of "healthy eating," and make the judgment for yourself, not because of what society has told you.