As I grew up between divorced parents from different cultures, I compared food in a way that led to it flavouring the rest of my life.
At my Anglo-Saxon mums' place, mealtimes were a healthy version of a home-cooked Western diet: three or more veg, meat and potato, salads, a regular spaghetti bolognese, dessert and occasional fish. Bread, milk and cheese were staples and meals were scheduled three times a day. Snacking wasn't allowed unless it was an apple or orange. Outside of celebrations, the only beverage I remember was water.
It was totally in line with the Australian Dietary Guidelines of the day.
Meals at my migrant, Tahiti-born dad's were a chaotic, startling, often riveting smorgasbord — a blend of his Chinese heritage, Tahitian culture and western adaptation. Over any given weekend we'd graze from fare as varied as Kentucky Fried Chicken, BBQ pork, salty dried plums, Bok Choy, mangos, coconuts, Arnotts biscuits, lollies and rice from his well-worn rice-cooker.
Over time, I observed a pattern in the way my body responded to these different diets. I would immediately become unwell after eating western junk food. I was relieved when dad would prepare his traditional foods – garlic and ginger-rich stir-fried Asian greens and fungi, and his fresh-cut pineapple, often felt instantly healing.
On the island of Hainan, the hele crab (crab of joyous harmony) is famed for its bright orange and red tomalley. Combined with the local sand ginger it makes a delicious sauce for oysters. Destination Flavour China
Under mum's stricter diet regime, I was mostly healthy, however constant rhinitis, and occasional stomach pains, headaches and asthma plagued me. Oddly, my rhinitis cleared on days I maxed out on apples.
Observing this powerful link between food and health, created a fascination with diet that led me to study naturopathy. I discovered abstaining from wheat, alcohol and dairy foods relieved me of all my health issues.
I began to wonder if my brother, who'd passed away from asthma aged 32, and dad, who died from heart disease and lived 15 years less than his own father, would have benefited from a diet closer to dad's cultural background. Dad had also suffered from a wheat allergy so severe he'd had to abandon a job as a club caterer.
In 100 Million Years of Food. What Our Ancestors Ate And Why It Matters Today, author Stephen Le says we should forget all modern fad diets. He claims the best diet for our health and biology is simply the traditional fare of our cultural ancestors. In fact, Le believes most chronic health woes stem from departure from our food roots.
Rather than fad health foods like smoothies and juices, perhaps we could turn more often to our grandparent's traditional recipes.
In support of Le's argument, statistics show that migrants who adopt a western diet have an increased risk of chronic disease. Research also suggests we can improve our health by reverting to the traditional diet of our ancestors.
A medical journal article reports on three studies that found people from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander backgrounds improved their health complaints by following their traditional diet and lifestyle.
A traditional diet and lifestyle also helped female Pakistani migrants living in Melbourne treat metabolic syndrome in a small study published in the journal Metabolism. After 12 weeks, the strategy significantly reduced their BMI, blood pressure, cholesterol, blood glucose and insulin levels
Further compelling evidence lies in the significantly higher rates of dairy intolerance in cultures without a historical tradition of dairy consumption. For example, a global Lancet research review found 100 per cent of people in South Korea have lactose intolerance compared to 4 per cent in Denmark and Ireland, and 8 per cent in the UK.
Scientists believe the development of the enzyme to digest milk occurred as a biological adaptation to dietary milk associated with cattle domestication about 10,000 years ago.
Other research shows that Australian infants with parents born in East Asia have a greater risk of peanut allergy than their peers with parents born in Australia. Is this partly linked to eating a diet they’re less biologically adapted to?
Health advice should consider cultural factors more. Rather than fad health foods like smoothies and juices, perhaps we could turn more often to our grandparent's traditional recipes.