October 19, 2021

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Fit And Go Forward

‘Healthy Eating Advice Needs to Be Culturally Inclusive’

Tai Ibitoye (@taitalksnutrition) is a UK Registered Dietitian with postgraduate degrees in Dietetics and Nutrition and Human Nutrition. She is currently a doctoral researcher in Food and Nutritional Sciences. Here, she fills you in on why official healthy eating advice needs to show the nutritious foods from all of the cultures represented in the UK. No one, she says, should feel they need to choose between their culture and their health.

*For individualised medical and dietary advice, please make sure you speak to your GP and Registered Dietitian.*


A few years ago, as a newly-qualified Dietitian, I delivered a nutrition workshop to a group of young adults from an African background. I was asked, in a light-hearted manner, if I would advise them to ‘eat quinoa and kale’ and tell them to ditch their ‘jollof rice, fufu and pounded yam’ – which are starch-based foods of the West African diet.

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I laughed nervously, replied: ‘No’ and proceeded to show them an image of the Eatwell Guide on a PowerPoint presentation slide. Another person then said: ‘We do not see our foods on there…’

I realised that, even though the information I provided verbally was tailored to the group – giving examples of portion sizes and how many vegetables to eat by referring to traditional foods – I should have shown pictorial examples alongside the Eatwell guide.

It would also have been good to have had ethnic-specific educational materials that people can identify with, again showing foods from the group’s culture, to support their ability to make informed healthier eating choices. Which, to be clear, in no way means giving up the nutritious, plant-based foods described above.

The Eatwell guide, which shows government recommendations on eating healthily and achieving a balanced diet

In a more recent workshop with a similar group of people, I was more prepared. I had images of traditional foods included in my presentation slides and written resources that had cultural food examples coupled with healthy eating advice, portion sizes and cooking tips.

I was a bit shocked when someone said to me, ‘I didn’t know that I can still eat this’ as they pointed out a picture of a fibre-rich plantain in a leaflet I had given out.

After a discussion with the person, I was made aware that because some people have not seen many of their foods being presented as ‘healthy,’ they automatically assumed that they were not. I had also come across some people who felt like they had to give up the traditional foods they love and include novel foods to have a healthy diet.

As a Dietitian, this is alarming – and sad. This is why I am passionate about healthy eating guidelines and advice being inclusive of the traditional foods of the kaleidoscope of cultures represented in the U.K.

What is the Eatwell guide?

Just in case you’ve not come across it before, the Eatwell Guide is a UK policy tool and visual representation of how different foods and drinks can contribute towards a healthy and varied diet. It is based on five main food groups which include:

  • fruit and vegetables
  • starchy carbohydrates,
  • beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins,
  • dairy and alternatives,
  • oils and spreads

    The guide also gives dietary messages like: ‘eat at least five portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables a day,’ ‘base meals on starchy carbohydrates – opting for whole grains where possible,’ ‘have foods and drinks that are high in fat, salt and sugar less often and in small amounts,’ and ‘drink 6-8 cup/glasses of fluid a day’.

    How many people in the UK are from a Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic group?

    Showing different ethnic groups the healthiest possible way to enjoy a traditional diet is ever more key, as the cultural makeup of the UK continues to diversify. According to the 2011 Census, in England and Wales, 14% of the population identified themselves as being from a Minority Ethnic group.

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    From 2001 to 2011, the percentage of the population from a Black, Asian and other ethnic minority background living in the UK increased, with the number of people from a Black African background doubling. People from Asian ethnic groups still make up the second-largest percentage of the population, at 7.5%.

    Are there any specific health risks for different ethnic groups?

    It’s also true that some ethnic groups are at greater risk of a handful of health issues. For instance, people from Black African, African Caribbean and South Asian backgrounds living in the UK are more likely to develop heart disease and type 2 diabetes compared to their Caucasian counterparts. Additionally, people of African Caribbean origin are twice as likely to have a stroke, and at a younger age, than the rest of the UK population.

    The causes of these chronic diseases are complex, multifaceted, and can include structural inequality. Risk factors such as genetics, ethnicity, comorbidities and behaviours like diet and physical inactivity can all potentially increase the risk of developing these conditions. While there are some risk factors that we cannot change (like our genes and ethnicity) there are others that can be modified – like our diet – to lower the risk of some health issues.

    That’s why speaking to the cultural food experience of individuals is so vital. There is good evidence to suggest that eating a healthy and varied diet that consists of plenty of fruits and vegetables, wholegrains, moderate amounts of saturated fats, protein and dairy and dairy alternatives, can play a major role in preventing and managing some diseases.

    Culture can significantly affect some people’s food preferences, food intake and lifestyle choices. With that also being said, food is seen as more than just about nutrition or a necessity for a balanced diet. It can be an expression of identity and tradition.

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    Therefore, it is essential that nutrition advice, information and resources should be made more inclusive so that people from different backgrounds can find it applicable to them and not be put in a position where they feel they have to decide between their culture and their health. Instead, they can feel empowered to use heritage foods and cooking techniques in their healthy eating choices – and not feel the need to conform to societal ideas of what ‘healthy eating’ should look like.

    While one person might enjoy a dinner of wholewheat spaghetti with a piece of grilled salmon, tomatoes and spinach, another might prefer jollof rice made with red pepper, peas and tomatoes, with chicken on the side. Both meals are balanced and complete, but, because the latter isn’t shown in healthy eating literature, some people might not appreciate that reality.

    Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen: An Introduction to New African Cuisine – from Ghana with Love (Hardback)

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    There are currently some health organisations like Diabetes UK, local groups and nutrition professionals that have made great efforts to make general dietary advice more culturally inclusive. In a local health service context, there have also been some cultural adaptations to the Eatwell guide, meaning that people are encouraged to still consume the traditional food they enjoy with tips on cooking methods, food portion sides and ways to overcome barriers to eating healthily.

    So, what next?

    As the UK population becomes more ethnically diverse, healthy eating advice, information and resources should be reflective of this. Though there has been adaptations of the Eatwell Guide made within some local communities, I think that this should be made available on a more national level so they can be easily and widely found.

    It would also be great to see more online information and resources made available in various languages, to be more inclusive.

    I also think there is a space for magazines and newspapers to embrace cultural diversity and widen the types of images they use to depict ‘healthy eating’ in articles and features about nutrition.

    Though culturally specific cookbooks and nutrition books do exist, I would also love to see more publishing companies invest in more cookbooks written by different people from different cultural backgrounds.

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