Traditional Diets Combat Obesity and Other Diseases

December 20, 2012

In the upcoming special Food, Nutrition & Science issue on obesity, Guest Columnist Sara Baer-Sinnott, President, Oldways, talks with us about retailers connecting with their shoppers' heritage for a healthier diet.

The diseases we know today, like diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and obesity, were much less common with traditional diets in earlier times. Scientific studies show that conditions like these skyrocket as traditional diets are left behind.

Take Greece, for example, home of one of the world’s healthiest and most lauded ways of eating and living – the Mediterranean Diet. The country now has one of the highest obesity rates in the world, a result of the old ways moving toward the new ways of fast food, larger portions and less exercise.

The growing problem of obesity in the U.S. is also related to this same shift away from traditional lifestyles, as immigrants from Asia, Africa, Europe and other countries adopt a more standard American diet (the SAD diet).

The good news is that our heritage – no matter where we are from – is a healthy heart, a strong body, extraordinary energy, vibrant and delicious foods, and a long, healthy life. We have the power to claim all of this, using heritage as our guide.

As Michael Pollan wrote in The New York Times, “I have yet to hear of a traditional diet – from any culture, anywhere in the world – that is not substantially healthier than the ‘standard American diet.’ The more we honor cultural differences in eating, the healthier we will be.”

Traditional eating patterns such as the Mediterranean, Asian, Latin American, Vegetarian and African Heritage Diets share a common focus on vegetables, legumes, healthy fats like olive oil, nuts and avocados, and whole grains with spices giving each dish a distinctive cultural identity. These healthy ways of eating are powerfully nutritious and delicious, and naturally meet the guidelines that health professionals and national guidelines promote today.

Oldways’ five Heritage Diet Pyramids are a great place to start. They provide snapshot views of traditional, cultural models for healthy eating. They are all grounded in years of solid nutrition science and also feature great tasting food and dishes. 

Retailers and Heritage Diets

Retailers can easily help their customers reconnect with their heritage by highlighting easy-to-find ingredients and a variety of heritage recipes. Participating in heritage holidays like African Heritage & Health Week (Feb. 1-7) and National Mediterranean Diet Month (May) is another perfect opportunity to help shoppers on their journey to achieving a healthy weight and a host of other health benefits through cultural models for healthy eating – the Oldways heritage diets.

The following 9 Steps for Health Through Heritage illustrate how common ingredients are at the center of all these delicious and healthy traditional diets and how shoppers can discover them.

1. Boost Flavor With Spice. From curry to oregano, spices are low-sodium ways to add incredible flavors to grains, beans, vegetables, and seafood. Try a different herb every week for a taste of the world’s cuisine.

2. Make Vegetables the Star of Your Plate. Steamed, sautéed, roasted, grilled or raw, encourage shoppers to enjoy veggies in larger portions than the other parts of their meal.

3. Change the Way You Think About Meat. Use lean, healthy meats in smaller amounts for flavor. Try small pieces of prosciutto for pasta.

4. Serve Fish Regularly. Experts recommend eating fish and seafood, especially tuna, mackerel and salmon, which are rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, at least two times per week.

5. Serve Up Whole Grains. Fuller, nuttier tasting whole grains are a favorite all over the world. Include them with each and every meal – perhaps a slice of 100% whole wheat toast, a bowl of vegetable quinoa soup or plate of brown rice and beans.

6. Use Small Amounts of Healthy Oils. Try olive oil or other healthy oils for dressings and cooking.

7. Make Room for Celebration Foods. We all have special foods that have always been in our families. Some of these foods may fall outside the guidelines of the Heritage Pyramids. Save these foods of meaning and memory for special occasions. Enjoy them infrequently, but when you do have them, enjoy them whole-heartedly!

8. Jazz Up Fruits for Dessert. Fresh or frozen fruits like melons, peaches, berries, and mangos – plain or sprinkled with chopped nuts or coconut – add a sweet taste of satisfaction at the end of a meal.

9. Drink to Your Health. A splash of flavor can make water your go-to drink. Add crushed fruits or small amounts of 100% fruit juice to water or sparkling water to make refreshing “ades” (like lemonade!). Iced tea with a little honey is another refreshing alternative to soda and other highly sugared drinks.

Returning to the old ways of eating and living (don’t forget exercise and getting enough sleep!) can help everyone reclaim their health by claiming their history. Let the old ways be a guide to good health and well-being. Visit for tools to help introduce traditional diets to your customers including Oldways’ five Heritage Diet Pyramids, recipes, shopping tips, cultural heritage information, scientific studies and more.

Sara Baer-Sinnott is president of Oldways (, a nonprofit food and nutrition education organization, with a mission to guide people to good health through heritage, using practical and positive programs grounded in science and tradition. Simply, we advocate for the healthful pleasures of real food. Oldways is the parent organization for The Whole Grains Council and The Mediterranean Foods Alliance, and is well-known for creating the Whole Grain Stamp and the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid.