Many of us grew up with food as a source of love and the kitchen as the primary family gathering place, where saying no to second servings was akin to a crime. The familial connection to food can greatly impact how we eat; how much we eat and what we eat – and are often passed on from generation to generation. Not only does culture play a role in what we eat – from quantity to flavors and spices – it can also impact how we view thinness or obesity. In some cultures, a rounder body shape is preferred or viewed as a sign of prosperity while in other cultures, food is often given as a gift and a premium is placed on processed foods.
When helping people make different food choices, health professionals need to walk in the shoes of their clients and come to the table with culturally sensitive recommendations. Instead of overhauling diets, we need to help people take small steps that are sustainable and achievable for long term results.
A Growing Global Gut
The world’s waistline is expanding, especially as more processed foods are introduced to diets that were traditionally rich in whole foods. Add the change in diet to a world that exercises less and drinks more sugary beverages and it is no surprise that obesity rates have nearly tripled since 1975, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). In addition, a rise in fast food sales has been found to correlate directly to a rise in body mass. China now has the largest number of obese individuals in the world, with 46 percent of adults and 15 percent of children being categorized as obese or overweight, according to The Lancet Global Health. Obesity knows no borders. More than 48 percent of the population of the Cook Islands was considered obese in 2014 and Qatar had a 34 percent obesity rate, followed closely by the United States at 33 percent, also according to WHO.
Helping Your Clients See the Issue
While consumers understand that the world is getting heavier, ironically, they do not see that they may personally have a weight problem. A UK study revealed that 55 percent of adult men and 31 percent of women who were overweight did not consider themselves to be obese. Another factor making it difficult to assess whether a person is overweight or obese is that as the world’s waistline is expanding, so we are seeing a new normal. It is important for us to understand when we have a weight problem, to help make heathier food choices.
The notion of thin and fat varies greatly by culture. Many societies rave about chubby babies and view baby fat as a sign of thriving and good health. That idea of “good fat” continues for many as a sign of good health throughout their adult life and thinness is seen as unhealthy. Words like scrawny are often used to describe a person of normal weight and extra weight be vibrant, prosperous and affluent. Still others who grow up amid overweight family members see only these body shapes as the norm and feel destined to be overweight all their lives.
Professionals need to be sensitive to cultural differences to avoid fat shaming, which has become prevalent in many parts of the world. We want to talk about different food choices and help people with self-care options. Labeling some food as “bad” and others as “good” can create unnecessary stigmas. Guilt is such a powerful emotion and feeling guilty about eating beloved foods can cause more harm than good.
Creating Community, Creating Change
To help people learn to make different food choices while remaining culturally sensitive can be effectively done through the support of community. Research has shown that consumers lose more weight with the help of a support group. Nutrition Clubs are social gatherings that offer a supportive community to focus on good nutrition, activities such as regular exercise and other health and fitness goals in order to achieve their optimum health. Research shows that healthy habits, including diet and exercise, are best developed and maintained when accompanied by a support structure that values and reinforces those habits.
Community starts with the family. Understanding how food plays a role in the family and helping people make healthier food choices that work for them. Lasting health change comes not from overhauling foods that are important to a person, but by creating small changes to make beloved dishes healthier.
Author: Rocio Medina, M.D., Vice President, Worldwide Nutrition Training, Herbalife Nutrition