Welcome to the new year! We’re coming out of a season of celebration that’s often marked by cultural and family traditions. Many of these traditions include delicious foods tied to childhood memories. I can remember my grandmother – now in her 90s – stirring her famous black beans with love every year. They simmered for hours to be later served atop a heaping serving of white rice and alongside roasted pork shoulder. In my own family, we are making new memories and traditions by baking my mother-in-law’s decadent cookies. These cookies have three sticks of butter and four egg yolks, but they are so good.
The start of a new year is often full of reflection. It’s common to think about the goals you want to accomplish in the coming months. Oftentimes these goals involve how and what we eat. As a doctor working in the area of population health, I’m very much in favor of people thinking about their health and how to improve it. Healthful eating can prevent and even treat many chronic diseases. We generally recommend eating plenty of vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds, limiting dairy and eggs and avoiding sugary drinks, processed foods and red meats. However, the goals we set and the changes we make to our nutrition need to fit within our understanding of who we are. Food, especially, can be a big part of that identity.
I’m someone who loves the whole experience of food, the sight, smell and taste of it. I love finding new foods as I travel. Whether I’m in a new country or a new region of our own, so much of the culture of a place is present in the food. And because food is an integral part of culture, and how we fit within it, it can be difficult to change eating patterns established over a lifetime. Just ask a Texan how they’d feel about giving up barbecue entirely.
As we set our goals around making healthier food choices, I like to suggest we look for the small changes we can make that still respect our cultures and traditions. These small changes are more sustainable in the long run. That Texan I mentioned doesn’t have to give up barbecue entirely, but they could eat it once a week instead of several times. And it isn’t just about what we reduce in our diets – it is often about what we add. Incorporating daily servings of fruits, vegetables and whole grains into the meals we already enjoy can have a lasting impact on our health.
In my own life, I try to make healthy choices that make an occasional indulgence possible. I’m serving more plant-based and whole foods in family meals. My 3-year-old has declared roasted “crunchy” chickpeas her favorite side dish. I also look for ways to make substitutions in recipes that I love. I use olive oil in my cooking instead of butter and I make my grandma’s picadillo with ground turkey instead of beef. Some recipes I just don’t want to change. I can’t imagine making my mother-in-law’s cookies without all that butter, so I don’t, but I don’t make them all the time. In a way, that makes them all the more special when we make them during the holidays.
So, as you look at the year ahead and think about your nutrition – what small changes could you make while respecting your cultural traditions? My grandma’s black beans atop a heaping plate of quinoa sounds really delicious!
This is not medical advice or intended to be a substitution for proper medical advice given by a licensed provider.