• Food - and the sharing of food - plays a big role in cultural identity. (Getty Images / Dima Sidelnikov)Source: Getty Images / Dima Sidelnikov
Culture can play a big role in weight gain and loss.
Melanie McGrice

4 Sep 2017 - 4:38 PM  UPDATED 7 Sep 2017 - 2:32 PM

Cooking for others can be how we show love. And special dishes and the sharing of food is a huge part of cultural identity. But that can make it very hard for someone trying to lose weight.

Take *Denise for example.  Denise is a 47-year-old mother of four.  She is smart, beautiful and runs her own business, but for years has struggled with her weight. 

 “Being from a Greek background, food was very important,” she explains.  “We had a large family and every week-end we had a function; christenings, birthdays, weddings.  Everything revolved around food.”

As an Accredited Practising Dietitian one of my most important roles is undertaking a comprehensive assessment to diagnose why someone is struggling to achieve their goals, and help them tweak their current practices. 

With clients like Denise, family history can be a key part of that assessment.

Denise’s upbringing significantly impacted upon her later weight struggles.  “My father was strict, and whatever my mum cooked, we weren’t allowed to leave the table until everything was polished off.  I remember for years, we would sit there for hours when there were foods that we didn’t like.  There were times when I felt ready to throw up, but I wasn’t allowed to leave until I’d eaten every last scrap. He would send us to our room if we didn’t eat all our food.  I remember once when mum made Faki (lentil soup), and my brother didn’t like it, my dad pushed his face in the bowl.  Growing up like this, I developed terrible guilt for leaving food.”  Digging deeper into Denise’s story I learnt that her dad had experienced terrific hardship in Greece, and had undergone immense sacrifices to provide food for his family, so his desire for his family to eat the food he’d provided is understandable. 

Stories like Denise’s are common in the clinics where I work.  It’s often not as simple as people not knowing what they should be eating, but about un-doing years of behavioural attitudes to food.

Research has shown that in addition to a person’s personal history and situation, culture can play an important role in weight gain and loss, including factors such as attitudes to food, exercise and body shape, and food’s role as an expression of cultural identity. 

Denise explains, “My husband is from a Greek background as well.  My mother-in-law was an unbelievable cook – especially her desserts.  We always had bread on the dinner table to soak up the sauces.  A salad was drenched in oil.  My mother-in-law would cook up a feast, and I’d be on a diet, but she’d get upset and say “why aren’t you eating it?  Don’t you like it?” then that would make me feel bad.  So I’d break my diet to eat it. Then, because it was so yummy, I’d struggle to stop. Then, I’d get depressed, and eat more to cope!  It was a viscous cycle.”

Denise’s genetic pre-disposition for weight gain, combined with her cultural eating habits and our Australian environment where access to food is cheap and easy caused her to rapidly pile on the kilos. 

Food is such an important part of many cultural backgrounds, but the obesogenic environment of the Western world where physical activity is low and food is cheap means that many first and second generation Australians struggle with weight and the dietary modifications that need to be made.

Now, through a combination of education, counselling and medical nutrition therapy, Denise has reached a weight that she’s happy with.

I worked with Denise to help her understand that although there are so many benefits from a traditional Greek-inspired diet, there were a few modifications that needed to be made to suit our current environment.  For example, as Australians tend to undertake a lot less incidental activity, we don’t need the same large portions of carbohydrates.  Denise now chooses bread or pasta at a meal, not both.  We also reduced the quantity of oil served on her salads, and discussed how often it’s realistic to eat special occasion foods.  After all, it’s not really a special occasion when you’re having a party every week end!

However, there was no need to give up her Mediterranean-style diet altogether.  Mediterranean diets are often show-cased for their health benefits, including the anti-inflammatory benefits of extra virgin olive oil, the cardio-protective benefits of fresh salads, and of course, the social benefits of sharing a meal with loved ones.

As Denise and many like her have discovered, weight loss isn’t simple. Taking time to understand the many factors that influence us, and working out ways to still be part of occasions and gatherings we enjoy, can make a significant difference.

*Denise preferred not to have her full name used.  

For more insights into weight challenges in Australia, watch The Obesity Myth, Monday nights at 7.30pm starting September 7, then on SBS On Demand

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