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Ethnic Traditions


Although people who come to the United States from various parts of the world tend to adopt American dietary practices to some extent, the dietary choices of people from various ethnic groups living in the United States continue to be influenced by the traditional food practices and/or religious customs of their heritage. Consequently, the "American" cuisine continues to evolve to include culinary influences from around the world.

Food intake surveys of the United States population indicate that people in all ethnic classifications are at high risk for dietary deficiency of omega 3 fats, copper, and dietary fiber. Statistics also suggest that Asian American, African American, and American Indian women have a higher risk of dietary calcium, zinc, and vitamin A deficiency than Caucasian women, while African American and American Indian men are at higher risk for vitamin A deficiency than Caucasian men.

Physical Factors

Certain ethnic groups appear to be genetically susceptible to certain health problems that impact their dietary needs. For example, some American Indian tribes, most notably the Pima Indians of Arizona, have a very high incidence of obesity and diabetes. Also, lactose intolerance is more common among Asian Americans and Hispanic Americans than Caucasians. Lactose intolerance is a condition characterized by an inability to digest lactose, the primary sugar in dairy products, which can result in abdominal pain, gas, and diarrhea.

It is interesting to note that the apparent genetic susceptibility of the Pima Indians for obesity and diabetes, and similarly the presence of lactose intolerance among Asian Americans and Hispanic Americans, was discovered only after these groups began to adopt the "standard American diet" in favor of the traditional diet of their people. Thus, although genetically susceptible, it appears that individuals belonging to particular ethinc groups may not actually experience health problems unless their life practices and food choices shift the balance in this direction.

Nutrient Needs

Based on food intake surveys of the population of the United States, the probability that the diet of any person of either gender or of any ethnic classification living in the United States is deficient in omega 3 fats exceeds 90%. The probability of dietary copper deficiency (that is, too little copper in the diet) exceeds 80% regardless of ethnic heritage, and the probability of dietary deficiency of fiber is greater than 50% for all people of any ethnic classification or gender. Simply put, there is a greater than 50-50 chance that you do not get enough omega 3 fats, copper, and fiber in your diet, regardless of your gender or ethnic classification.

Asian American, African American, and American Indian women have a higher probability of dietary deficiency of calcium, zinc, and vitamin A than Caucasian women. In the case of calcium deficiency, lactose intolerance (the inability to digest lactose, the primary sugar in milk) may be involved, since lactose intolerance is common among Asian Americans and African Americans, and may lead to low intake of dairy products. Lower dairy intake, however, could not, by itself, explain the higher level of calcium deficiency in these groups, since many non-dairy sources of calcium (including mustard greens, Swiss chard, tofu and sesame seeds) have been shown to prevent calcium deficiency.

African American and American Indian men have a higher probability of dietary vitamin A deficiency than Caucasian men, which may be partially be caused by lower intake of vegetables that contain beta-carotene (carrots, spinach, and sweet potatoes), which is converted to vitamin A in the body.

Regardless of the explanation for the greater levels of deficiency described above, members of these ethnic groups may want to focus on foods containing these nutrients in their meal planning.

Dietary Choices

The dietary choices of many Americans do not necessarily coincide with their ethnic or religious dietary heritage. In fact, it is common for people who move to the United States from various parts of the world to slowly abandon traditional dietary practices and adopt a more "American" eating style. However, dietary choices of people of various ethnic groups living in the United States continue to be influenced by the traditional food practices and/or religious customs. For example, many Asian Americans still eat a diet similar to traditional Asian diets, which include large amounts of rice accompanied by vegetables, soy products, fish and meat. Many Hispanic Americans continue to eat a diet based primarily on beans, rice, and corn tortillas, seasoned with chili peppers and accompanied by beef, pork and chicken and small amounts of dairy products.

Religious beliefs may also influence dietary choices. The Jewish faith includes dietary laws called the Rules of Kashruth. Foods selected and prepared according to these rules are called kosher, which comes for the Hebrew word meaning "fit or proper". The following discussion summarizes the Jewish dietary laws:

  • Meat: Only cattle, sheep, goats and deer are considered "clean" meats. Most types of poultry and fowl are still permissible. No pork is allowed. To be labeled as kosher, the animal must be inspected for disease and slaughtered according to specific rules. Then, all blood must be removed from the meat before cooking. Meat products are soaked in water, thoroughly salted, and then washed three times to remove the salt.Most foods are also blessed during the preparation process.
  • Meat and Milk: Meat and milk must not be eaten in the same meal. Orthodox Jewish homes have two sets of dishes, one for serving meat and the other for meals using dairy products.
  • Fish: Only fish with fins and scales are allowed. Fish can be eaten with meat or dairy products. No shellfish are permitted.
  • Eggs: No egg with a blood spot may be eaten. Eggs may be used with either meat or dairy products.

From the teachings of the Koran, Moslems have developed certain dietary laws that restrict the consumption of certain foods and beverages and promote the consumption of others. For example, the consumption of pork, pork products (for example, gelatin), alcohol and alcohol products (for example, vanilla extract) is strictly forbidden, while the consumption of figs, olives, dates, honey, milk and buttermilk are strongly encouraged. All meat products consumed must be slaughtered according to specific rules, similar to the way in which "kosher" meat is prepared. In addition, the Koran commands that Moslems fast during the month of Ramadan. During Ramadan, Moslems observe daily fasting, taking in no food or drink from dawn to sunset. After sunset, Moslems celebrate by feasting.

Regardless of your ethnic tradition, the World's Healthiest Foods can supply you with the information you need to enjoy vibrant health. The World's Healthiest Foods provide maximum nutrition for the lowest caloric cost, improving your energy, while helping you to remain slim and trim. With the personalized information available on the World's Healthiest Foods website (Food Advisor), you can quickly determine which foods will best promote your health. Then take advantage of the wonderful recipes specially developed to fit your needs. Reaping the many benefits of providing optimal nutrition for yourself and your family has never been more accessible or easier.


  • . Diet and nutrition-related concerns of blacks and other ethnic minorities. Bull Mich Dent Hyg Assoc 1989 Mar-1989 Apr 30;19(1):4-9. 1989. PMID:19130.
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  • Tursunov SIu, Britov AN, Nigmatdzhanova MN, et al. [The effect of diet on the level of the main risk factors for arterial hypertension taking into account ethnic characteristics in the organized population of Andizhan]. Kardiologiia 1993;33(3):51-2. 1993. PMID:19180.

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