Culture Influences How and What People Eat

Each year, when Dwight Glen travels to New York to visit his family for Thanksgiving, he is reminded of the culture he left behind nearly nine years ago.

A resident of Hyattsville, Md., Glen is originally from Guyana, an English-speaking country in South American that shares Caribbean culture and values. Although he has lived in the United States for almost a decade, Glen always tries to get a bite of his native food when he can and that is usually at his aunt’s house in New York.

“There aren’t a whole lot of Caribbean grocers around and it can be very hard to find Caribbean restaurants,” Glen said. “I mean, it could be hard to find restaurants that cook authentic Caribbean food.”

While much attention has been drawn to the lack of sufficient grocery stores leading to malnutrition and improper eating, studies show that culture plays a significant role in food choices.

Glen is one of many immigrants who find it hard to become accustomed to the food that is available to them in this country. Since Glen was raised on dishes like pepper pot, curry chicken and saltfish, he often finds it difficult to assimilate to the food outlets that are around him. Some restaurants that claim to be Caribbean are not, he said, unless the owners and chefs are from that region.

“I will admit that it would help if I could cook,” he said. “My mother came to the states before she could teach me, I guess, and going out to eat has become too expensive.”

When he first migrated to the states, Glen said that he would often eat Kentucky Fried Chicken, since that was a main fast food restaurant in Guyana. However, he instantly grew sick of it, noting that he gained about 10 pounds within the first two years after moving from his country.

“All people become hungry, but the formulas for stimulating and satisfying appetite vary considerably across cultures,” said Joan Ferrante, author of “Sociology: A Global Perspective.”

In her book, Ferrante explained how one indicator of a culture’s influence is how people define only a portion of the potential food available to them as edible.

For example, some countries may consider grasshoppers, locusts and ants as excellent sources of protein while other countries may prefer dogs and snakes. Most Americans, said Ferrante, find it appalling that someone could eat dog meat because here, dogs are pets. However, Ferrante also said that Americans have no trouble eating lamb, beef or pork.

“Cultural formulas for relieving hunger not only help people to decide what is edible, but to ‘decide’ who should prepare the food, how the food should be served, how many meals should be consumed in a day and the times,” she said.

Elizabeth Okoro from Arlington, Va., believes that her Nigerian culture influences the way that she eats and even joked that no one in her immediate family is skinny.

“It is true, in some parts of Africa, when they say a man would only want a woman with some meat on her bones,” she said.

Okoro said that in some cultures, meat is considered a luxury and if you are a “woman with meat on her bones,” then you come from a wealthy family.

Jules Harrell, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Howard University, said that “culture is going to affect certain behaviors — what we eat, the amounts we eat and how we share.”

In the United States, Harrell explained, Americans have “their own individual plate of food,” whereas in other countries, people would eat out of a shared bowl. Culture also tells parents if food is not plentiful, they will give it to the children first.

But when it comes to overeating, Harrell explained that some people may have sensory cues while others may have metabolic cues. Metabolic cues enable the human body to stop eating, while sensory cues make people have the urge to want more based on how good the food tastes.

Babies received cues that encourage them to nursing until they have reached a nutritional satisfaction, Harrell said. Cultural adaptations also turn into cultural mal-adaptations where people eat certain things because other things were scarce.

During slavery, the Africans were stripped from their normal diets. They were brought to America and adjusted to different types of meals. Throughout slavery, blacks grew accustomed to eating scraps of pork, such as bacon and other foods high in fat and sodium that could be considered detrimental to African-American health.

“People often think that if it was good enough for the slaves to eat, it’s good for us now, but that is not true,” Harrell said. “The slaves were a lot more active.”

Throughout the years, blacks have come to call certain types of food soul food, showing a sense of communication of love and joy through food, Harrell said.

Jacqueline Neil, president and CEO of Glory Foods, a black-owned company, said: “Everybody knows the movie ‘Soul Food.’ Food is what brings us together. It’s no accident that black folks end up in the kitchen.”