Latina Dietitian Talks “Healthified” Alternatives of Latin Foods

"Healthy" alternatives to Latin foods can be great but many of our cultural foods are also nutrient dense as is

Latin Foods healthy versions

Photos: Unsplash/ Edgar Castrejon / Anton

For many Latinxs, there’s nothing more comforting than our cultural foods. They bring back memories of home and of quality time with our families. Yet, diet culture often leads us to believe that our cultural foods are somehow wrong and that they must be restricted and even eliminated. For example, many people swap white rice for brown rice due to diabetes-related fears.

Partly because of this demonization of our cultural foods and partly because of a desire to promote health, we see more “healthified” alternatives on the market. From grain-free tortilla chips to low-carb tortillas to sugar-free chamoy, there are more and more options that help you cut back on certain nutrients, like carbs and sugar, while still having foods that remind us of our beloved cultural foods.

Some people find them to be welcome alternatives that help them enjoy these foods without guilt. Others may find these foods to be game changers in enjoying their cultural foods while managing a chronic health condition that warrants dietary changes. On the other hand, some may consider these alternatives to be gentrified versions of our cultural food staples.

As a Latina dietitian, I’m always helping my Latinx clients make peace with and embrace their cultural foods while managing chronic health conditions. There are a few things to consider when deciding whether or not to purchase these altered versions of our cultural foods.

Our Cultural Foods Are Full of Nutrition

First of all, it’s so important to make peace with your cultural foods. The Mediterranean diet may get all the attention these days, but our Latin cuisines are full of nutrition, too. Of course, we aren’t a monolith; each country has unique cultural foods and dishes, but in general, we eat well-rounded, nutrient-dense foods.

For example, root vegetables like yucca and yautia are full of fiber and potassium. Avocados are high in fiber, vitamin C, and heart-healthy fats. We also eat lots of beans, which are a great source of fiber, iron, and plant-based protein, and pairing beans with white rice makes a complete source of protein with all of the essential amino acids. Furthermore, corn tortillas are rich in fiber, zinc, vitamin B3, and resistant starch!

Rather than resorting to eliminating our cultural foods in favor of Eurocentric dietary patterns, I recommend learning about and celebrating the nutritional value of your cultural foods.

Satisfaction Is An Important Part of Nutrition

Of course, just like any cuisine, Latin cuisines also include foods that are higher in added sugar, saturated fat, and sodium—nutrients that most Americans could stand to eat less of, per the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. However, satisfaction is an important part of nutrition!

When you eat foods that are satisfying to you, you can move on with your day. On the other hand, if you restrict foods you love, you will probably find yourself obsessing over that food. If the food becomes available, like at a family party, you may find that you feel out of control around the food. Many people fear that if they allow themselves to eat their forbidden foods they’ll never stop, but that is usually a sign of an unhealthy relationship with those foods.

So, rather than cutting out traditional cultural foods, like chamoy, that you think are bad, it may be worth reframing those black-and-white thoughts about food. Rather than labeling it as bad because it has sugar, consider the social and emotional benefits it offers you. Allow yourself to enjoy it and move along with your day. Remember, one single food usually won’t make or break your health; nutrition is about the big picture.

Our Cultural Foods Aren’t to Blame for Latinx Chronic Disease Rates

Many Latinxs fear developing a health condition like diabetes, hypertension, or high cholesterol. A lot of us have family members we love who struggle with one of these conditions. Unfortunately, our cultural foods are often blamed by doctors, loved ones, and the media. However, there are other, more impactful factors that impact our development of these conditions, like healthcare inequities, higher poverty rates, and systemic bias.

For example, as of 2021, 18 percent of U.S. Hispanics were living in poverty compared to 13 percent of the U.S. population as a whole, according to the Pew Research Center. Living in poverty reduces your access to nutritious foods and healthcare. Furthermore, U.S. Hispanics are the most uninsured racial or ethnic groups in the U.S., according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In 2020, a whopping 18.3 percent of U.S. Hispanics didn’t have health insurance, compared to 5.4 percent of non-Hispanic whites.

We often think of individual behaviors like diet and exercise when we think of chronic disease. Diet and exercise can certainly help prevent and manage chronic disease, but if you can’t access a doctor, are living in poverty, have a history of trauma, and live in an unsafe neighborhood then there’s more we need to consider than just how much sugar you eat.

So, when are cultural food alternatives beneficial?

In some cases, alternatives to our traditional cultural foods may deserve a place on the table, particularly when it comes to managing a chronic health condition.

If you have diabetes, you likely need to be more conscious of your carbohydrate intake and how different foods impact your blood sugar. If you notice that certain cultural foods or food combinations raise your blood sugar too much, you may want to experiment with alternatives to see if they help you better manage your blood sugar.

For example, the American Diabetes Association says that sugar substitutes may be a good option for some people with diabetes since they have little to no impact on blood sugar, unlike regular sugar. However, there isn’t conclusive evidence that these substitutes help manage diabetes in the long term, so you’ll still need to be mindful of how these foods affect your blood sugar if you have diabetes. You can also consider having smaller portions of your traditional food rather than eliminating it entirely.

Of course, it’s also possible that you thoroughly enjoy some cultural food alternatives out there even if you don’t have a chronic health condition. Just because a food has some diet-oriented marketing doesn’t mean you can’t have it if you like it. Most importantly, consider your intention behind having the food.

Is it rooted in fear of your traditional cultural foods?

Are you afraid your cultural foods will cause weight gain?

Are you afraid your cultural foods will cause you to develop a chronic health condition?

Are you able to be flexible and still eat your cultural foods in their traditional form as well?

Ultimately, your intention is most important. Once you set a foundation of peace with your cultural foods, you can make decisions from an empowered position. Rather than selecting foods from a place of fear, you can connect with what feels best for you.

If you enjoy the authentic versions best, let yourself have them guilt-free so you can move on with your day. If you are curious whether an alternative may help you better manage your health, try it with curiosity and be willing to be flexible rather than all-or-nothing about your food choices. Nutrition isn’t one-size-fits-all, so lean into what is authentic to your preferences and your needs.

Isabel Vasquez is a second-generation registered dietitian of Puerto Rican and Dominican descent dedicated to an anti-diet approach and embracing cultural foods.

In this Article

cultural foods Featured Healthy Eating healthy food Latin American food
More on this topic