The Kitchen Think: Back to Our Roots… and Legumes and Whole Grains…


The old joke goes something like this… I have some good news and some bad news — which do you want first?

First the good news: Latinos are living longer than ever before. Now the bad news: We are getting fatter faster and are more likely to suffer from diabetes and other diet-related health issues than any other ethnic group in the United States.

And it’s no laughing matter.

If the traditional Latino diet is a healthy balance of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and nuts, how did we wind up in this situation? It’s simple: We stopped eating like the ancients and started eating like Americans — deep-fried and super-sized. We lost our culinary compass and bought into the idea that faster is better and bigger is best.

As we’ve become more acculturated, we’ve adopted the American way of living and eating. We’re eating more sugar, salt and processed food — a complete erosion of the Latino traditional diet. The cheaper foods we are eating are also the foods that have no nutrients. And we’re exercising less. In the past, we walked, danced and worked outdoors. Now we walk only to the refrigerator for another can of soda (which, incidentally, we drink more of than any other ethnic group).

Let’s face it: Our genetic makeup just isn’t used to this kind of living!

The diet of our ancestors is what we know we should be eating now: fresh fruits and vegetables, a little fish, chicken and dairy, and – every now and then – meat, eggs and sweets. This is the basis of the Healthy Traditional Latin American Diet Pyramid, devised by The Harvard School of Public Health and Oldways Preservation and Exchange Trust, a non-profit food history and nutrition education group. The pyramid illustrates not only what to eat, but how to enjoy life.

“The bottom of the pyramid has a family all eating together,” says Sara Baer-Sinnott, president of the Latino Nutrition Coalition, an Oldways educational program aimed at inspiring Latinos to improve and maintain healthy living. “What this says is that a healthy lifestyle is really a combination of what you eat and how you exercise, plus keeping your culture alive within your family.”

The largest food groups on the pyramid are fruits, vegetables, beans, tubers (potatoes, cassavas or yucas, and yams) nuts and grains. These should be eaten at every meal, says Baer-Sinnott. The pyramid’s distinctive Latino flavor is especially evident when looking at the fruits and vegetables. In addition to the standard tomatoes, lettuce and apples, the pyramid also includes boniatos, tamarinds, papayas, pomegranates and tomatillos. Fruits and vegetables are especially important because they tend to be high in fiber and Vitamin C and are believed to help fend off stomach and cervical cancers, both highly prevalent in the Latino community.

There are also numerous bean varieties, which speaks to the ubiquity of this legume in the cuisine of almost every Hispanic country. Vitamin-rich beans, like other legumes, are a tremendous source of protein and, unlike meat and dairy, have little fat. Importantly, they also help lower “bad” LDL cholesterol and triglycerides in your blood and help stabilize blood sugar — a plus for diabetics.

Certain foods that we used to think of as bad for us, like nuts and avocados, also have a prominent place on the food pyramid. “There are good fats and healthy fats, like avocados and peanuts, both of which are from Latin America,” Baer-Sinnott explains. Research shows that not all dietary fats are the same when it comes to increasing risk for heart disease. Nuts have healthy unsaturated fat, which helps lower the cholesterol in the blood, and are packed with protein and fiber. Avocados are high in heart-healthy monounsaturated fat.

Fish, shellfish, plant oils, dairy and poultry are the backbone of the pyramid because — while they may push their vegetables around the plate — Latinos will still eat an appetizer of camarones, dive into a platter of arroz con pollo and finish it all off with flan. Protein is an important nutrient, especially for adults, because it produces the enzymes and hormones that the body needs to resist disease. Fifteen-percent of your daily calories should come from protein. But be careful. These foods generally contain saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium, so they should be eaten only once a day or less.

Finally, at the top of the pyramid are all of the things we eat too much of — meat, eggs and sweets. We should really eat these foods less than once a week because most of them are heavy in saturated fats. This can increase your cholesterol level and lead to heart disease, the leading cause of death among Latinos, according to the American Heart Association.

The top of the pyramid also has foods that contain sugar, which has little or no nutritional value and can easily turn into body fat unless you exercise. And if you don’t? The increased weight can escalate blood sugar and lead to diabetes. According to the National Institutes of Health, at least 10 percent of the Latino population 20 years or older has diabetes. Puerto Ricans, Mexicans and Cubans have the highest prevalence for the disease.

OK, time for some more good news: All is not lost. Changing your eating habits is not as difficult as you think. You know to pull the skin off the chicken before eating the meat and to use nonfat or low-fat dairy products. Here are a few more healthy ideas:

• Read the labels of everything you eat. You’ll be surprised at the amount of sugar and sodium you’re consuming. It’s in the ketchup, and it’s in the salad dressing.

• Avoid white foods: white bread, pasta, white rice, sugar, etc.

• If you really want meat, eat top sirloin (it’s cheaper than you think). Trim the fat before cooking it.

• Go whole grain in your pastas, bread and even tortillas. Don’t forget about quinoa… it’s on the pyramid!

• Eat breakfast. Start the day with a lean protein, fiber-filled carbs and a healthy, low-fat yogurt.

• Drink lots of water and nutritious fluids. Celery, cucumber and lean beef are also high-water foods.

• Season your food with garlic, spices, herbs and lemon.

• Use tomato-based sauces instead of butter or cream sauces.

• Use a cooking spray and non-stick cooking pan.

“Traditional diets are common-sense diets,” says Baer-Sinnott. “It is pretty simple. If we all followed a traditional diet, ate sensible portions and exercised, we wouldn’t have as much obesity, diabetes or heart disease.”

So, get moving! Dance in your living room. Walk around the block with someone special. Ride a bike, go swimming or play ball with your children. Thirty minutes of exercise a day will reduce your chances of getting diabetes by 60 percent. Little changes in both your diet and how you exercise will make a big difference over time — and that’s the best news of all!

This article first appeared in Cafe Magazine, May 2010

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I’m Christina Chavez

I was a TV journalist for many years, but with a house full of kids I decided to come off the road, go to culinary school and follow my passion for cooking. Mama’s High Strung is all about food… everything from creative recipe ideas to some really cool kitchen gadgets and cooking tips. I live in Chicago, but I love to travel and write about my food discoveries! You can reach me by email: