This past Friday, I was scheduled to be in Kansas City, Missouri to present at the Women’s Fitness Summit hosted by Girls Gone Strong, a community I have admired for years.
However, due to a freak incident that left Eddy spending some quality time in a hospital room for a little while—yes, he’s fine, I’m fine, everyone’s fine now!—I had to do something I’ve never done in the five years of me traveling and speaking places: I had to cancel an appearance.
I was feeling bad about it, but was feeling good about being there for Ed to get home.
That is, until the e-mails started coming in. And I felt sad again. I created a presentation I was proud of! I could finally contribute to GGS! But womp. Double womp. Quadruple womp.
But then I had an idea—why couldn’t I blog my presentation?
So, that’s what I’m going to do.
Part of the reason why I first started A Black Girl’s Guide to Weight Loss, is because of an experience I had when I lived in a predominately Cuban apartment complex when I lived in Miami. I was working out in the fitness center we all shared, when two Latinas were talking to a guy who was in there lifting, while I was on the elliptical. They started 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 was trying to be cute and charming, and started talking about beans and rice being a staple in Cuban households and, noticing that I had pulled out my headphones to listen, nodded towards me while suggesting that there might be something in my black American culture that, although it might not be the healthiest, was still meaningful. In other words, “comfort food.”
This idea intrigued me. How do we define “comfort food?” Does this definition change between cultures? How does my definition, as a black American, differ from the next person? After writing for this blog for almost 8 years now, I’ve collected stories of women who talk to me about their cultural communities, and how hard it is to leave behind the foods they know and love in favor of healthier fare that would get them closer to their goals. I think I have a better handle on it all now, and what it means as we move forward in an increasingly multi-cultural community.
What’s more, but because of the way nutrition is taught in America, there’s an increasingly disconcerting belief that there’s only one way: one way to cook a certain vegetable, one way to set your macros, one way to lose weight. Not only is this troublesome because this “one way” rarely allows space for non-white-American communities to have their cultural cuisines respected, but also because this “one way” ideology has the added effect of forcing clients to embrace flavor and taste profiles that they’re not used to, which only worsens their chances of adhering to their plan and achieving success.
So, you might be asking the question, “But Erika, what’s culture got to do with any of it?”
When families migrate to America, and it has been this way for generations, they bring remnants of home with them. They bring their language, because language fosters community and can help build support systems to carry them through the rough years while they get acclimated to their new environment. They bring their flags and other symbols, because it can help them feel connected to a large part of that which they’ve left behind. They bring their music, style of dance, and maybe even traditional dress (head wraps, kilts, beads, and so on. And, yes, they also bring their food.
Food is culture, and culture is community. So, what does that tell you about food? It is community, plain and simple. Michael Pollan used to have this saying that would always frustrate me—“culture is just another word for mom“—but he’s not totally wrong. Culture is what our families taught us about how to be in the world, what to enjoy, how to love, and—yes—how to eat. Knowing and experiencing these things is what binds you to your peers and fosters a sense of belonging.
This is important. When it comes to how we guide our clients through understanding how to shift their daily diets, we need to know that certain recommendations only fosters a level of isolation that prevents them from being able to stick to the plan. As human beings, we are built for community. We are built to be social. What’s more, we are built to be healthy and eat healthily. When you center the client’s cultural food traditions in the discussion, you’re being mindful of their need for community, redefining the understanding of what “comfort food” can be, and ensuring that they develop a stronger sense of what’s healthy or not for them.
With weight loss being a specialty of mine, one of the more common refrains I see and hear is about how “95% of people who lose weight regain it.” Regardless of the accuracy of that stat, there are a lot of reasons why someone might regain their weight… one of which being we expect them to stay, long term, on a diet that is bland in comparison to their previous diet, with no tools to help them navigate the difference between the two either privately or in social settings.
It’s very common to hear people talk about, with regard to the plight of black Americans’ health statistics right now, how “soul food” is what’s causing so many of my community to experience heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, and so on. Aside from the fact that this false from start to finish, it also exemplifies what happens often in this country, and not just with us. We demonize dishes like pasta in America. We demonize Mexican food in America. We’re dumbfounded by the French—all that butter, all that fat, and they don’t experience the same poor health.
With all that demonization and dumbfoundedness, we’ve experienced a shift in the way food is made and sold in America, and it’s resulted in changes in the way we eat the recipes we’ve known our whole lives. 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 led us to believe. Tortillas are originally far more filling, but when manufactured en masse, the traditional source of fat is stripped out and replaced with artificial ingredients that not only change the macronutritional profile—now, it’s all carbs oooooorrrr the lard was replaced with trans fats—but now also change the amount you need to feel full from eating it. The same can be said of pasta—traditionally made with a whole egg or egg yolks, having the protein and fat stripped out in favor of making it more shelf stable. The more the carbs, the more the trouble people experience.
The same examples of this can be rooted out in just about any culture. For instance, in my own, cornbread is a staple. A bit of research shows that the original cornbread recipes were made with coarsely ground corn meal, which ensured more fiber and protein, and often involved full-fat milk, all three qualities ensuring a more filling recipe. (There is also hot water cornbread, which didn’t use full fat milk, but still used more coarsely ground corn meal.) Not to mention, the introduction of sugar to the recipe made it not only sweeter and therefore more difficult to stop eating, but also pushed us to embrace “sweet” over “savory.” The ubiquity of sugar made it an inescapable carb source, something that makes it extremely difficult to escape… even in recipes we’ve known and loved for generations.
The introduction of processed food also meant the introduction of foods which macronutrient profiles that favor making food shelf-stable and non-perishable, instead of ensuring the nutrition was optimal for the public. The way rice, corn, flours, and many other grain and grain sources that have been staples of cultures across the globe have been manufactured and transported to countless countries has changed the ingredients we all know and love for the worst… but we don’t realize it. We’re simply consuming the foods we’ve always loved, feeling satisfaction from the sugar high we get from the carb rush, and then wondering where the high blood pressure or diabetes is coming from. When clients say they “don’t understand it,” they’re not being dense. They don’t understand, and it makes total sense.
With your client, take a look at cookbooks created by people representing their own culture, and run through your mind their macronutritional profiles. Look at how much protein, fat, and fiber can be found. Send your clients on a scavenger hunt. Ask them to choose their favorite dish, then find an old recipe for it in a published cookbook and cook it. Look at the macronutritional profile for the recipe they’ve found. How do they compare? Is the recipe less sweet? Is it more or less filling? Are the ingredients less processed? Does it rely more on handmade mixes instead of the boxed mix they might’ve grown accustomed to using?
How can you create the nutrient profile your client needs—ensuring they have adequate amounts of carbs, protein, fiber, and dietary fat and so on—through ingredients they’ve grown used to their entire lives, with flavor profiles that they are familiar with? How can you get them to ditch pre-mixed and pre-made items that they’ve adopted for convenience, in favor of more realistic dishes—realistic in terms of time and in terms of affordability—that match the flavors they’re used to and the amount of time they have to cook them?
When you help your client craft their plan, keep these things in mind—combined with their nutritional needs for their chosen activity and intensity level—when you work together. Help them create a routine, complete with a chart and a shopping list, to help them ensure that they’re always prepared to swap out or modify recipes at their discretion. Give them the tools to discern what’s best for their goals, and encourage them to find healthy ways to enjoy their own cultural foodways, instead of relying on old standard rhetoric that demonizes any cultural recipes that aren’t distinctly bland.
Empathy and cultural sensitivity are not only cornerstones of a successful coach—they’re cornerstones of being a good person, too. The two qualities help ensure your client’s success, signify your success with cross-cultural clients, and ensure a long line of clients who want the magic touch of a trainer and guide who doesn’t want to force them to eat steamed broccoli and chicken breast for the rest of their lives.
And, really…who wouldn’t want that?!
For more insight on cultural foodways: