Beyond the Mediterranean diet: Exploring the health benefits of Latin American, Asian and African heritage diets

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Source: Getty/	JohnnyGreig
Source: Getty/ JohnnyGreig

Related tags diet

Expanding awareness of culturally appropriate heritage diets beyond the Mediterranean diet could reduce the risk of diet-related diseases in the US associated with “nutrition transition” away from traditional eating patterns to ones high in processed foods, refined starches, sugar and sweetened beverages, researchers argue in the international review journal Advances in Nutrition.

It also could reveal areas ripe for innovation for manufacturers eager to meet rising consumer demand for global flavors, culturally relevant and better-for-you but still convenient foods and beverages.

“The Mediterranean diet is a well-studied cultural model of healthy eating, yet research on healthy models from other cultures and cuisines have been limited” – hindering the development of evidence-based, culturally appropriate dietary guidance that could help address health disparities across demographics, writes​ researchers in the study led by Kelly LeBlanc, VP of nutrition programming at the food and nutrition non-profit Oldways.

She explained to FoodNavigator-USA that nutrition professionals intuitively understand that different cultures and cuisines have helpful components and they want to honor and respect their clients’ cultural traditions by offering guidance through these different lens – but currently there is not a shared language or sufficient evidence-based research about different cultural diets like there is for the Mediterranean diet.

Establishing a shared language and basic framework around different heritage diets can help researchers systematically and scientifically document and measure their health impacts and create evidence-based recommendations that elevate the cuisines and their benefits, she added.

In reviewing Latin American, Asian and African heritage diets as cultural models of healthy eating, LeBlanc stressed that the researchers were “not pitting one diet or one group against another,” and “not saying you to have to eat a certain way because of your cultural or ethnic background.”

At the same time, she said, the researchers wanted to show that diet-related diseases that currently are more prevalent among demographic subgroups in the US are not inherent to their cultures or heritage. But rather that there are many healthy, flavorful foods that are a part of their heritage.

“The goal is really to signal that there are multiple pathways to good health and well-being,” and to encourage people “to look at those wonderful choices that we have and hopefully find something that inspires you and that you connect with,” LeBlanc said.

Cultural diets share common patterns with different specific ingredients, flavors

In reviewing traditional Latin American, Asian and African heritage diets, researchers found each followed a “core-fringe-legume” pattern “consisting of unrefined carbohydrate foods, like whole grains or tubers, as the base (core) of the meal, along with vegetables and small amounts of meats, sauces or fish (fringe) and legumes, which add flavor and variety,” according to the study.

“Whether we are looking at Latin American heritage diets, African heritage diets or Asian heritage diets, we see a strong emphasis on the plant-based foods and while each pattern feels similar from one part of the globe to the next, what feels different is the specific ingredients,” LeBlanc said.

She explained: “One place might be more inclined to have cooked with black beans, whereas another place might have felt more inclined to cook with lentils versus another place that might have been more inclined to cook with pigeon peas. So, we are looking at the similarities in the patterns, but the differences in the foods and flavors.”

Source: Oldways,

With this in mind, and recognizing that substantial variation in diets exist within the broad geographic areas, the researchers found traditional Latin American diets tend to be rooted in whole grains (primarily maize) and beans, along with fruits and vegetables, including peppers, tomatoes, avocado, potatoes, pineapple, passion fruit, carrots and zucchini, and sometimes seafood.

“Many ingredients popularized as ‘superfoods’ today, such as quinoa, amaranth, chia seeds and acai berries, are native to Central and South America,” the researchers add.

The higher intake of fiber from black beans are associated with improved heart and metabolic health, while high intakes of fruit and whole grains and lower intakes of added sugar and refined grains or added fats are associated with lower inflammation, the study reports.

Despite differences among cultures in East, Southeast and South Asia, the researchers found common eating patterns among traditional Asian diets, including high intake of vegetables, vegetarian protein sources, such as tofu, legumes and nuts, and whole grains, such as millet and barley. Fermented foods also are common in these cuisines.

Consuming traditional Asian foods are associated with higher fiber intake, which can help prevent chronic disease. Likewise, high intake of soy, fish and n-3 fatty acids and green tea along with low intake of red meat and saturated fat are associated with lower risks of certain cancers, heart disease and type 2 diabetes, according to the research.

The African heritage diet draws on four major regions – continental Africa, the American South, the Caribbean and South America – and includes greens, black-eyed peas, okra, yams, peppery sauces and seafood, whole grains like maize and limited dairy, meats, sweets, bread and eggs. Teff, millet and sorghum are also important cereal grains.

These foods are associated with lower risks of hypertension, breast cancer – especially more aggressive estrogen receptor-negative forms – , reduced colonic inflammation and increased gut bacteria diversity, according to the study.

Call to action: Keep an open mind and build on research

The study is a starting point for defining heritage diets from different geographic regions and cultures, but additional research is needed to create evidence-based guidance, LeBlanc said.

“The call to action is to continue to move this field forward. We would love to see more research on these different cultural traditions and more open-mindedness” when offering culturally-tailored nutrition programs and advice, said LeBlanc.

Packaged food and beverage manufacturers can participate by creating foods and enhancing supply chains for ingredients that are culturally relevant and offer health benefits.

Related news

Follow us


View more