Looking for Food in All the Wrong Places

Must American dietary reformers always look abroad for healthy eating? To answer this question, we have to start by recognizing that America is a country with no one "traditional" diet.
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This National Nutrition Month, eat like an American.

Every March, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics campaigns to raise awareness about healthy eating, encouraging good food choices and physical activity. Nutritionists tend to call the less-than-healthy diet of fatty-foods and super-sized calories The Standard American Diet. In response, those interested in healthy eating find themselves looking beyond our country's borders for examples of good diets.

A recent example is a Michael Pollan's program on PBS, "In Defense of Food." In this two-hour show, Pollan explains his seven-word Food Rules: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. Dividing the edible world into "food" and "food-like substances," he argues that we should eat a lot more of the former. And he shows how the processed food industry tricks us into thinking we are eating healthily when we are in fact eating the same sugar, white flour, meat and fat-centered diet that has contributed to the rise in dietary diseases like diabetes.

Pollan's condemnation of American eating is the latest in the long history of American food reform that began even before the rise of processed food. In fact, food advice began with the founding of the American nation. The first American food reformer, Benjamin Rush, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. He believed Americans were becoming politically degenerate, in part because they ate badly. He exhorted Americans to consume less meat and less hard drink as a way not just to stay healthy but also to become better citizens.

So where do we go to find a healthy diet? Pollan finds his answer in Tanzania and France. In particular, he presents the Hazda tribe as "some of the last people on earth who still get their food the way our ancestors did." Numbering less than a thousand people, the Hadza represent one of the last hunter-gatherer cultures still in existence. They eat mostly the wild foods they gather and the occasional hunted animal. Along with the slow-eating French, the Hadza represent, for Pollan, a return to the "traditional" healthy diets that Americans should embrace. In other words, like those nutritionists who look to the Mediterranean for healthy ways of eating, Pollan assumes we have to leave home to find good diets.

Must American dietary reformers always look abroad for healthy eating? To answer this question, we have to start by recognizing that America is a country with no one "traditional" diet. While the American meat-and-dairy intensive diet has its roots in northern Europe, other immigrants came and brought different, more plant-based diets to this country. Although African Americans are featured in Pollan's discussion of poor diets, African Americans' actual food traditions closely follow Pollan's Food Rules. West African slaves brought their farming expertise and their traditional fruit and vegetable-intensive diets to the American coastal low country of Georgia, Virginia and the Carolinas. Their traditional diet featured rice, corn, yams and other vegetable crops, supplemented with fish they caught and chicken they raised. These African American agriculturalists' diets were eventually incorporated into Southern plantation household cooking and became the basis of meat-and-three-veg southern country cooking. Most of these diets emphasized vegetables, greens, beans and grains, with meat as an accompaniment, not the center of the meal.

Southern and African American scholars -- such as Michael Twitty and those in the Southern Foodways Alliance -- have been rediscovering their healthy traditional cuisines. These scholars have documented how the traditional Southern diet became less healthy as it became more modern - adding more meat, fat and sugar to what were once vegetable-based cuisines. In fact, early nutritionists stigmatized traditional vegetable-intensive immigrant diets as "leaf eating": less nutritious in comparison to a meat-centered diet.

In other words, Pollan did not have to go to Tanzania and France to find healthy diets. He could have found those diets at home. Maybe the better answer to eating healthily would be for Americans to look to our nation's entire immigrant food heritage. In other words, the answer to eating better could be to eat more like who we are.