Note from Molly Galbraith: Erika was originally going to present this topic at this year’s Women’s Fitness Summit, a fitness event we have sponsored for three years. However, due to a family emergency, she couldn’t be there. We are so grateful she was willing to write an article for on her topic so that the GGS community could benefit from her ideas and expertise.
When I first started my website, A Black Girl’s Guide to Weight Loss, I was inspired by an experience I had while living in Miami, in a predominantly Cuban community.
Food is an integral part of cultural identity, and in Miami, a colorful and multi-cultural city, food is bound to come up in conversation. During a workout one day, I overheard a conversation that piqued my interest. Two women and a guy, all Cuban, were talking about familial challenges to eating healthier, and the way culture impacts the choices they make and the way they achieve their goals.
The guy, trying to be cute and charming, started talking about how beans and rice are a staple in Cuban households. When he noticed that I had pulled out my headphones to listen, he nodded towards me and brought me into the conversation, suggesting that perhaps there’s something in my black American culture that, although not considered “the healthiest,” is still meaningful. In other words, comfort food.
This topic intrigues me. How do we define “comfort food?” How does that definition differ among cultures? How does my definition, as a black American, differ from someone else’s?
I’ve been writing for nearly eight years, and in that time, women have shared countless stories with me about their cultural communities and the difficulties they face as they shift from eating some of the foods they know and love, toward healthier fare that could better help them reach their fitness goals.
I’ve learned a lot during these eight years, both through my own journey as well as from all the stories and experiences shared with me. I want to use and share this knowledge as we move forward in an increasingly multi-cultural society.
The way nutrition is taught in America has fostered the disconcerting belief that there’s only one way. One way to cook a certain vegetable. One way to set your macros. One way to achieve your fitness goals and, if you want it, weight loss. This is troublesome. This “one way” ideology rarely allows the space and respect for the cultural cuisines of non-white American communities.
“One way” nutritional guidelines often forces people to embrace ingredients and flavor profiles that they’re not used to, decreasing the likelihood that they’ll adhere to said guidelines and achieve success.
You may be wondering, “But Erika, what’s culture got to do with it?”
Actually, a lot.
When families migrate to this country, they bring along tangible and intangible things reminiscent of home. They bring their language, which fosters community and allows them to build a support system to help them get their footing in their new home. They bring their flags and other symbols that remind them where they’re from. They bring their music, dance, and often their traditional dress (head wraps, kilts, beads, and so on), and, yes, they also bring their food. All of these things help a newcomer feel connected to that which they’ve left behind and cultivate a feeling of comfort in their new environment.
Food is culture, and culture is community. So, what does that say about food? Plain and simple, food is community. In his book In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan said something that used to frustrate me—“culture is just another word for mom.“ The thing is, he’s not totally wrong. A large part of culture is what our families have taught us about who to be and how to be in the world—what we enjoy, how we love, and how we eat. Knowing and experiencing these things is what binds us to our community and fosters a sense of belonging.
In the fitness world, understanding this is particularly important for trainers and coaches as they help clients make nutritional changes. Certain recommendations that might be considered standard-issue to many professionals, may foster a level of isolation that prevents a person from being able to commit to their plan. As human beings, we are social. We thrive in community.
Making someone’s cultural food traditions a central part of the discussion acknowledges their need for community, broadens the client’s understanding of what “comfort food” can be, and ensures that they develop a stronger sense of what’s healthy or not in a way that aligns with the ingredients they’ve grown to know and love.
Because weight loss is one of my areas of expertise, one of the more common refrains I see and hear is how “95 percent of people who lose weight regain it.” Whether or not that statistic is accurate isn’t important. The broader point is that, for a lot of people, weight loss is hard to maintain. There are many possible reasons why someone regains weight, one of which is that they are expected to adhere to a diet, long term, that often differs greatly (in flavor profiles as well as actual ingredients) from the foods they’ve eaten most of their lives. What’s more, they are rarely taught skills or given relatable tools to navigate those differences at home or in social settings, where they are more likely to encounter people and situations that make it oh-so-easy to “break” the boundaries they’ve set for themselves. These experiences can leave a person feeling hopeless and send them spiraling right back to where they started, but a little more dejected and discouraged each time.
It’s very common to hear people talk about the plight of black Americans’ declining health right now, pointing to “soul food” as the driving cause of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity in my community. From my reading and experiences, this claim rings false from start to finish, and exemplifies what happens often in this country—and not just with us.
In America we demonize foods like pasta and Mexican food. We’re dumbfounded by the French—all that butter and fat, and yet, they don’t experience the same health issues. Over time, all that demonization and dumbfoundedness has influenced the way food is made and sold in America, and has changed the way we eat the recipes we’ve known our whole lives.
The introduction of modern food processing resulted in foods with macronutrient profiles that favor making the food shelf-stable and non-perishable, instead of ensuring that their nutritional value is optimal for a person’s health.
Tortillas, a cornerstone of Mexican cuisine, are traditionally made with lard which, when obtained the traditional way—leftovers from butchering and cooking pig parts—is nowhere near as unhealthy as our anti-dietary fat society has led us to believe. Tortillas made the traditional way are far more satisfying, but when manufactured en masse, the original fat source is typically replaced with artificial ingredients. These replacements change the macronutrient profile—now it’s all carbs and no fat, or the lard has been replaced with trans fats. It also changes how much of it makes you feel full when you eat it. The same can be said of pasta, traditionally made with whole eggs or egg yolks. The protein and fat are often stripped out, in favor of less nutritious ingredients that make the pasta not only more shelf-stable or cheaper to produce, but also far less filling.
You can find examples of these types of changes in just about any culture’s food in this country. For instance, cornbread is a staple in my culture. A bit of research shows that the original cornbread recipes called for coarsely ground cornmeal, which provided more fiber and protein, and often involved full-fat milk. Protein, fiber, and fat made this a more filling recipe. Even hot-water cornbread, which didn’t use whole milk, still used more coarsely ground—and therefore, more satisfying—cornmeal. The introduction of sugar to the recipe, something that became far more prevalent with pre-made mixes like Jiffy, not only made it sweeter and more difficult to stop eating, it also drove us to embrace “sweet” over “savory.” The ubiquity of sugar made it inescapable as it made its way into recipes that have been part of my culture for generations.
All these changes to foods that have been staples of cultures across the globe (like rice, corn, flours, and many other grains and grain sources) have slowly turned those once-nutritious staples into less nutritious, less healthy, and less filling versions of what previous generations enjoyed. We’re consuming the foods we’ve always known, foods we grew up with and loved, foods rich in tradition and history for us, and are wondering where the high blood pressure or diabetes is coming from. If a client says she “doesn’t understand it,” maybe, just maybe, she really doesn’t understand—and that makes total sense.
If you’re a coach working with clients who come from different cultural backgrounds, here are a few things you can do to be mindful of cultural differences and ensure your clients have a much more enjoyable experience and long-term success:
1. Learn about foods from your client’s culture.
Take a look at cookbooks written by people who represent their own culture, and get a general idea of the macronutrient profiles for popular cultural dishes and comfort foods. Look at how much protein, fat, and fiber a recipe offers. This can help both you and your client understand why they may choose to eat as much of a dish as they do. It can also help your client identify some ways to make the meal more satisfying or nutritious, with the added benefit of giving them the tools they need to successfully navigate social settings away from home.
2. Create a fun and educational culinary assignment for your client.
Ask your client to choose a favorite cultural dish or comfort food they make or eat often, then have them find an old recipe for it in a published cookbook or an old family “everything-from-scratch” recipe and prepare it that way. It doesn’t have to be ancient, carved in stone with a chisel and hammer, but it should pre-date the ubiquity of processed foods and super-sugary recipes.
Look at the macronutrient profile for the recipe they’ve found. How does it compare to the way they currently prepare this dish? Is the recipe less sweet? Is it more or less filling? Are the ingredients less processed? Does it rely more on fresh ingredients instead of pre-packaged mixes they might’ve grown accustomed to using?
3. Remain mindful and open-minded when working with clients from a another culture.
Include ingredients and flavor profiles that are familiar to their palates as you create the nutrient profile they need. In addition to ingredient and flavor preferences, keep your client’s concerns in mind so that you make realistic recommendations when encouraging them to move away from using pre-mixed and pre-made items that they’ve adopted due to convenience or price.
4. Provide your client with tools to help them navigate nutritional changes.
Craft a chart and shopping list unique to their preferences or traditional foods to help them find substitutes or make recipe modifications at their discretion. Instead of relying on standard recommendations that typically demonize cultural recipes in favor of dishes that are relatively bland to them, empower your clients to discern what’s best for their goals, and encourage them to discover healthy ways to enjoy their own cultural foodways.
The client-coach relationship is a partnership that relies heavily on each person’s ability to listen to one another and work together to ensure that the goals are set and met. As coaches, we want to prepare and guide our clients toward improved health, sure. To do so, we also need to make their path to success enjoyable. This includes respecting the richness of their cultures and communities.
Empathy and cultural sensitivity are cornerstones of a successful coaching relationship. Honing these two qualities has the potential to not only make us better people in general out in the world, it also helps us ensure our client’s success, and signifies to them that we value and respect their culture and are eager to guide them to success—without resorting to steamed broccoli and bland chicken breast for the rest of their lives.