Blog Nov 3 WorldPlate.jpg

Oldways is a food and nutrition nonprofit that encourages healthy eating through cultural food traditions and lifestyles. Those last five words ­— cultural food traditions and lifestyles ­— are what make Oldways special and different from other nutrition-focused organizations. This distinction also makes Oldways the ideal organization to bring many of the world’s top nutrition experts together for a conference dedicated to alleviating confusion and reaching a consensus around healthy eating ­— in other words, Finding Common Ground.

We have a 25-year track record of honoring cultural diversity. The first program Oldways embarked on centered on the Mediterranean Diet. There has been more research on the health benefits of following a diet inspired by culinary traditions from the Mediterranean Sea region than for any other diet. Recognizing that one size doesn’t fit all, in the following years we introduced other cultural models for healthy eating and created pyramids for Asian, Latin American, Vegetarian and Vegan, and, most recently, African Heritage diets.

This cultural relevancy makes a difference in successfully helping people eat more healthfully. Back in the mid-1990s, we were asked by the Center for Nutrition Policy & Promotion ­— the agency that writes the final US Dietary Guidelines and created the USDA pyramids and MyPlate ­— to present the Oldways cultural models for healthy eating to its staff. After our presentation, one staff member ­— a woman of color ­— stood up and said, “They’re right! The USDA pyramid doesn’t speak to me or my community.”

We’ve since extended the reach of our cultural food pyramids with other materials that provide people the skills to apply the time-honored wisdom of food traditions. One of my favorites is A Taste of African Heritage, our curriculum that teaches cooking and nutrition based on the African Heritage Diet Pyramid ­— the culinary traditions of the African Diaspora. Straight from the field, here are what some of the first teachers of this ground-breaking program have said:

•   “The fact that you’ve included terminology like ‘potlikker’ and the Sankofa symbol shows the cultural detail put into this.”

 •  “I’ve taught nutrition classes before with other institutions’ curricula where I had to talk out both sides of my mouth. I can’t tell a group of African Americans, with higher susceptibility to lactose intolerance, that they should be drinking three glasses of milk per day. They never have. Culture is a major part of sound nutrition.”

•   “At the end of each class, people walk away with a renewed sense of their ability to make a healthy African dish … and also build on this community that they’re creating by sharing stories.”

These teachers’ thoughts were echoed in a press report on this program, which has now been offered in more than 100 communities across the country. “The women in the class were intrigued by the history lesson as it related to diet and nutrition. They said they registered because they wanted to find alternative ways to eat healthier and feel better. Denice Smith, of Tyler, has high blood pressure and just wanted to find a better way to eat without excess sodium. The class taught her how to focus more on nutrient-dense vegetables and grains and use herbs and spices.” [The Tyler (TX) Morning Telegraph, September 30, 2012]

The United States is the ultimate melting pot, founded by immigrants, and built upon the shoulders of people from all parts of the world. The food traditions brought here by these immigrants ­— Italian, Irish, Vietnamese, Mexican, Latin American, Chinese, Japanese and Thai, West African, Ethiopian, Sudanese, and more ­— have in fact given us a literal melting pot, a rich menu of nourishing ways of eating well.

Oldways believes we will all be healthier ­— and richer in spirit ­— if we embrace our differences and adopt the many cultural models of healthy eating represented by the people who make our country great.

Sara, Oldways President

ON COMMON GROUND is a new weekly blog series from Oldways. Inspired by the Finding Common Ground conference Nov. 17 & 18, the series focuses on the issues, ideas, programs, and research that go beyond specific diets and nutrition trends to ultimately reach commonsense consensus and reliable guidelines about nutrition and food.

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