Health and Fitness

On Culture and Food

I wanted to write a post about relationships with food, because it’s something that’s personally important to me as well as something that I’ve noticed the differences in from my culture to others. It’s an interesting topic and this post isn’t about shaming anybody or any one culture for their food choices, but rather a call to take a look at our culture and habits and wonder if we can learn any important lessons from others.

Relationship with food as a culture…

As an American, I am familiar with the culture of snacking on things like chips and candy, eating foods that aren’t necessarily reasonably portioned (particularly in restaurants), and eating foods that are less than healthy on a semi-regular basis.

As a Californian, however (and there is a cultural distinction between regional cultures in the United States), I’m also accustomed to a culture revolving around health. People here are vegan, paleo, pescatarian, vegetarian, raw foods diet, whole foods diet, low fat, fat free, counting macros, zone diet, whole 30 diet…the list goes on and on. We have a lot of beautiful people who are really fit here in California (and then there’s me…I try to eat well. I try to exercise regularly, to varying degrees of success). People here in California will scarf down tamales, burritos, and pulled pork sandwiches one day, only to go on a juice cleanse and eat salads dressed with lemon juice the next.

In other regions of the country, it’s all about sugar and fried foods. I’m not going to deny that sugar and fried foods are delicious, because they are, but let’s also just say that they aren’t the healthiest things to be consuming on a regular basis, particularly when served up in really large portions, which they usually are.

Needless to say, we Americans have some issues with food. We love food, and we have some really awesome culinary traditions (as well as some terrible ones)…but we have issues with food.

As a traveler, I’m acutely aware of the cultural differences between my home and the place I’m visiting when I am traveling. I can’t help but notice the differences, and as somebody who strives to be a lifelong learner, I’m also of the mindset that there are certainly things we can learn from other cultures.

Here in the United States, I like the way a lot of things are done. I’m used to it, and it’s comfortable for me. Being a Californian in a highly diverse area, I’m accustomed to pretty much anything being available to me at all times. It’s nice. If I want Indian food…done! If I want Mexican food…it’s everywhere! If I want Ethiopian food…yup, I can have that, too!

That being said, I also like to look at how other cultures do things and learn some valuable lessons from them. Not everything we do here in the U.S. is the best way, so it’s useful to see what we might want to borrow from other cultures.

It’s no secret, and there have certainly been loads of books written on the subject, but have you ever noticed how slender most people are in France? I certainly did. And let’s not even talk about Japan, where I felt quite literally like a wooly mammoth as I made my way through the streets of Tokyo. Japanese people are pretty slender, as well.

So what is it about cultures where people are all pretty much slender vs. my own? What are they doing that I’m not, and most importantly…how can I incorporate these habits into my own life when I’m at home?

Since I’ve used the French and the Japanese as an example and since I’ve traveled to both of these countries, I’m going to run with them as my examples…

While the French diet and the Japanese diet are quite different in a lot of ways, there are some important similarities as well.

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  • Relatively small portion sizes.
  • A tendency to not eat until overly full.
  • Protein such as meat, chicken or fish plays a star role.
  • Fresh, seasonal foods.
  • Lots of vegetables and/or fruits.
  • Food isn’t overly processed.
  • Always includes a carb, but it’s something like fresh bread in the case of the French or rice in the case of the Japanese.
  • Again, portion sizes are much smaller.
  • This isn’t to say junk food and bad foods aren’t eaten in these places (they are) or that there aren’t unhealthy people in these places (there are)….it’s just that in general, this is what I noticed.

The other thing about both France and Japan that I noticed is that people walk a LOT in these countries. They aren’t strapping on spandex and hitting the gym hard, but they are out there walking to work, walking home, walking to lunch, running to catch the subway, that sort of thing. I lost weight when visiting both of these countries as I was eating and moving as the locals did. (In contrast, I actually gained weight in the UK even though I was walking a lot. Sorry, British people…but your pub food was delicious. Maybe TOO delicious…).

That’s nice and all, but it’s hard to do at home.

I get it. I do! Oh, I really do. We have a car culture which means it’s hard to walk to work. Our restaurants automatically serve large portions, and it’s often difficult to resist all those tasty goodies we’re being presented with all day long. Here’s what I’m doing to incorporate the lessons learned abroad into my own life…

  • I can’t walk to work, but I can go on a morning stroll around the block, a lunchtime walk near my work, and an evening stroll around town instead of plopping down in front of Netflix. I’ll also of course go to the gym or Crossfit when I want to and get a real workout in, but I’m trying to walk more in general.
  • I’m trying to eat more fresh foods. Sometimes I’m so busy and it’s so easy to buy a microwaveable meal or get a pizza from one of the many pizza restaurants near work (San Diego loves pizza), but I’m trying to be more mindful of what I eat. Luckily there’s also an organic grocery store near work that has a fresh foods bar, so if I’m rushed I can go there and get a piece of salmon and some grilled vegetables instead of something else.
  • I’m trying to cook more at home and prep my meals ahead of time, thus ensuring more fresh foods.
  • I’m really watching portion sizes. Easy if I prep my own, but even if dining out, I can always just eat half and have the other half wrapped up for a later meal.

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These are just some easy tweaks I’m incorporating into my own life, and I do feel better. Notice this post isn’t about food shaming anybody, and it’s not about counting calories or being overly strict. It’s also not about restricting any particular food you really want. One important lesson to learn from the French is that food is delicious and should be savored and enjoyed. If you like cheese, have some…just don’t have a ton of it. If you like cake, have some, but just a small slice. You get the picture. Enjoy your food. Eat reasonably. Enjoy occasional indulgences in small portions. Enjoy life.


What do you think about this topic? What have you noticed about your culture vs. others when it comes to food? Any lessons you’ve learned along the way? Any tips you want to impart from your own culture that the rest of us could learn from? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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