If You Think Tacos Aren’t Healthy, We Have News For You
“If you had to choose between eating tacos every day or being skinny for the rest of your life, would you choose hard or soft tacos?” This quote can be seen throughout Pinterest and Etsy, and, while it seems innocent enough, the implication is that tacos are tasty, yes—but also unhealthy.
The idea that cultural foods (i.e., not Westernized cuisine) are not up to healthy standards and should be treated as “cheat” meals is not regulated to Mexican foods. Many different cultures also believe the foods that they eat aren’t up to par. Amber Alexis Charles, MSPH, RDN, a dietitian based in Trinidad and Tobago, says that people in her country regard Caribbean foods as unhealthy or bad, a result of misinformation about the cuisine. “In the health and wellness spaces, we don’t see our foods represented, and if they are, maybe they’re on the ‘red list’ of foods,” Charles says. “What’s out there are foods that are ‘American’ or European, and we struggle to see how we fit into health spaces, and how to use our foods.”
So, What is Healthy Eating?
There tends to be a black-and-white mentality when it comes to eating healthy, especially here in the States: some solely imagine whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables when they think of the phrase. While foods that are hailed as “healthy” do provide much-needed nutrients for the body, oftentimes they conform to Western food standards, leaving other cultures feeling as though their foods are inferior. “I often hear that our cultural food doesn’t have many vegetables and that many of our staple foods are unhealthy, like rice and corn,” says Krista Linares, MPH, RD, a Latina dietitian based in Los Angeles. “Often people only count green leafy vegetables and overlook some of the other really healthy vegetable options we have in Latine food, or they think that vegetables have to be their own side dish to count.”
This viewpoint disregards other aspects of eating that go beyond macro and micronutrients, including autonomy, culture, preference, ancestry, and variety. A study looking at the relationship between food and ethnic identity in a group of Mexican American women names food as an important part of culture and of cultural expression. Cara Harbstreet, MS, RD, LD, a dietitian based in Kansas City, Missouri, defines healthy eating based on what it is not: “It’s not restrictive, punitive, or rigid,” she says. “It’s not disrespectful or dismissive of individual needs, taste preferences, or cultural practices.”
What Happens When You Label a Cuisine “Unhealthy”
Framing a cultural food as “unhealthy” indicates at least a couple of assumptions: that health is the primary motivator for its consumption, and that the food would be more acceptable according to Western health standards if it were modified and improved. No matter what the intention, attempting to “improve” and “healthify” a culture’s food, especially when you are not of that culture, is troubling—you are saying that you set the standard when it comes to health and healthful eating.
Take the decades-long misconception that MSG (monosodium glutamate), a flavor enhancer used in many different cuisines, is unhealthy and even toxic. This prevalent thought can be traced to a bad review of MSG from the ‘60s when a physician reported getting sick after eating Chinese food. This spiraled into a negative association with the cuisine and perpetuated racism against Asian Americans, even though current research shows there actually isn’t strong scientific evidence linking MSG consumption to the ingredient’s alleged side effects. (Once more, most of the glutamate we consume is found naturally in foods such as anchovies, parmesan cheese, tomatoes, potatoes, seaweed, and walnuts.) “If you hear something enough times, you start to believe it,” Harbstreet says. “If you constantly hear that white rice is inferior, or that MSG is toxic, you eventually start internalizing that message.”
There is room to add nutrients to cultural meals, but again, this doesn’t mean that the culture as a whole is “unhealthy,” or that even the dish needs to be completely altered. As a dietitian, I think there are ways to improve the nutrient density or nutrition composition of any recipe through different cooking techniques or ingredient swaps. Still, “it’s important to have competency with cultural humility before ever attempting this, and is likely best done on an individual level,” Harbstreet says.
Once more, when broadly labeling a cuisine as unhealthy, you also ignore wider systemic barriers that can contribute to health—it doesn’t only boil down to what we are eating. Factors such as safe housing, education, income, access to healthcare, and literacy skills, among others, also play a role in our overall health and quality of life.
How We Can Celebrate Culture
Recently, I attended a retreat in Tulum, Mexico, a destination with a vibrant history and amazing food. But instead of celebrating this, the retreat decided to “healthify” the meals: corn tortillas were replaced with grain and seed bread; white rice was swapped for brown rice and beans. These changes weren’t listed as an option for allergies or intolerances—to me, it seemed like they were decided on because Mexican food was not considered nutritious and needed to be healthified.
We can start to undo this type of mentality by realizing that all food still provides nutrition, and that cultural foods aren’t inherently unhealthy or in need of fixing. “Embracing your cultural foods is the greatest form of resistance against a society that’s constantly asking you to change how you eat and adopt other food cultures,” Alexis Charles says. As an individual, you might want to focus on altering one or two ingredients or foods in a meal—but this is vastly different than putting a culture as a whole in an unhealthy category.