I’ve continued to think about a topic from Oprah’s show last week “Diabetes–America’s Silent Killer,” that I didn’t mention in my last post: the ways in which type 2 diabetes can insinuate itself into the culture of an ethnic or racial group.
We learn how to eat as children. If our parents eat unhealthily, and later develop type 2 diabetes because of it, chances are that we will also become diabetic if we continue to eat our childhood favorites. One of Oprah’s guests mentioned that many people who have parents with type 2 diabetes feel resigned to the idea that they will inevitably develop it, too. They won’t even try to take the steps of exercising or eating healthily that would prevent this from happening.
The culture of type 2 diabetes isn’t just created by one’s immediate family, though; ethnic and racial identity can also play a part. At one point in last week’s episode, Oprah focused on a church congregation from Ohio, all of whom were pre-diabetic or diabetic. They were also all African-American. After the camera panned in on french fries and pork chops sizzling in vats of oil, Dr. Ian Smith, a guest on the show, commented that eating such foods was both a direct cause of type 2 diabetes and an integral part of African-American culture. Noting some of the congregation’s reluctance to give up fried foods even when presented with facts about their potential harmfulness, he explained: “Habits are tough to break, especially for African-Americans when their habits are around food, which is like a culture for them . . . Transgenerationally, we’ve eaten this way, and African-Americans take this ‘heels in the ground’ approach” (quotation from Oprah.com).
Of course, African-Americans are not the only group to consider unhealthy foods a staple of their culture. When I think of Italian food, I immediately picture pizza and pasta. Main courses in Chinese-American cuisine can be flavored with sauces containing as much sugar as desserts. Ashkenazi Jewish favorites include bagels, blintzes, and latkes not to mention toppings like cream cheese and sour cream. Naturally, most cultural groups have their healthy dishes as well. But the popularity of the unhealthier foods–the way they have pervaded mainstream American culture–shows that there is something about every cultural group’s fattiest, most carb-laden foods that makes them the hardest to resist.
What does it take to break out of eating patterns that have been engrained in us by our parents or culture? Dr. Smith, who is African-American, said he was brought up eating similar foods to those consumed by the congregation in Ohio. Since then, however, he has changed his lifestyle and is now the dietary and medical expert for the 50 Million Pound Challenge. To me, this is an inspirational example of how willpower can overcome habit. Although it’s tempting to legitimize our food cravings by looking back to our childhood or even cultural traditions, it won’t really help us in the long run. That is, not unless we also consider the circumstances in which these foods were originally consumed: not as an every-day staples, but as treats to compensate for times when food was scarce.