In this Live Chat nutrition expert Maya Feller sits down with Sharon to explore the importance of cultural and traditional foods in our diets.
I am so excited to host colleague and cultural nutrition expert, Maya Feller on my live chat today, as we talk about her new book “Eating From Our Roots,” as well as how we can honor our cultural food roots for happiness and health. Maya Feller is a well known nutrition expert and has been featured widely in the media, such as on Good Morning America. She answers some of our top questions on understanding nutrition through a culturally sensitive approach in our live chat. Check out the full interview below.
Things You Will Learn:
Q: What is your passion in the nutrition world and drive for writing this book?
A: I care so much about making sure that people actually have access to nourishing foods that also taste great. You know, when I was studying to become a Dietitian the recommendations that were hot to us, we’re really around restriction. I remember in some of my clinical rotations the dietitians were known as the calorie cutters. They are the ones that come in and tell us don’t eat this and don’t eat that and I realized that when I actually left school that was how I was trained. When I interacted with people in the real world, and I then realized I had to kind of shift how I was thinking about nutrition. I had to put the patient, the person that I was working with, at the center of the conversation. I had to listen to them, step back and say, oh, interesting, tell me more. What’s gonna work for you? How can I support this? How can I help you find a way that you can replicate this healthy behavior over and over again. Oh, you want to have more fruits and vegetables. Well, how do we find the fruits and vegetables that you like? Are they affordable? Through my kind of clinical work with patients, I realized everything I learned, I had to relearn. I also realized that there’s tons of nutrition confusion out there and that I wanted to be part of this movement of dietitians who are really encouraging people to think about what they can add to their plates and actually support their health goals without shame. But, more so I wanted to take the whole person, their culture, their background, their ethnicity, their socioeconomic status, and health literacy into consideration which all led me to writing this book.
Q: How do you connect people with wholesome foods they may have lost connection with?
A: Yeah, absolutely. Oftentimes when we hear eating from our roots and the word culture, we think, oh, that’s someone else that’s not me. But, everybody has culture, right? We’re all part of cultural groups that follow social norms that we agree upon. So, when you look at these recommendations you see half the plate is a non-starchy vegetable, a quarter is protein, and then a quarter is a starch. Very few people actually sit down and eat in food compartments. We eat a lot of mixed foods. I was just thinking the other day of waffles, for example. What if we wanted to make a waffle savory? It’s a great base and we can add all sorts of things to it and we can also play with the base ingredients. So you’ll never hear me say don’t eat a waffle. I’ll just say, when you do want to eat the waffle, how can we modify the ingredients to make it really satiating, nourishing, and tasty? Or if you have a condition, diabetes for example, maybe we’ll modify the flour so that we’re adding a little bit more protein and reducing the starch. Then we’ll top it with something to make it a wholesome nourishing meal that also keeps your blood sugar stable or relatively balanced. Rather than saying no, you can’t have it, thinking of ways to modify it to fit your goals.
Q: Do you see a loss in our connection to our culture and our roots?
A: Absolutely so. When we think about the U.S. it’s this major melting pot of people who’ve come here from all over the world. Sometimes what happens is people come here and they actually let go of their pattern of eating from where they’re from and they start to acculturate and take on things and follow what we refer to as the standard American diet. But we know that if this pattern is at the center of eating, it can be problematic in terms of your health. Burgers are fantastic, but burgers for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, that’s a challenge. Salads are fantastic but salads for breakfast, lunch and dinner, is also a challenge. What I found with my patients who come from all over is they don’t know how to fit their food into the standardized plate method. They didn’t grow up with brown rice, a steamed vegetable, and a grilled animal protein. I have patients who are from Southeast Asia, and they follow mainly a vegetarian pattern of eating and they actually said that they felt some level of shame because they didn’t eat meat. It’s interesting how sometimes we disconnect so that we can “fit in” and lose these things that are inherently wholesome and really great for us.
Q: Do you think that people don’t realize how healthful their cultural pattern of eating may be?
A: Absolutely, and I think the Mediterranean diet is a perfect example. We talk about the Mediterranean diet because there’s a lot of research, however, there are 22 nations around the Mediterranean and if you look at some of those countries, North Africa, parts of the Middle East the patterns are quite similar. There’s a lot of legumes, heart healthy oils, and animal proteins in moderation, if at all. The additives are lots of herbs and spices, bringing phytonutrients and antioxidants which are wonderful. Sitting down to a plate of hummus and zatar with pita bread, I mean incredible! If there is dairy, it is fermented dairy. We don’t think about that as being part of that Mediterranean pattern of eating when it is. I’ve had patients ask if they can have a tortilla, and my response is always, “absolutely corn tortillas are amazing, especially with beans in them.” You could add some vegetables, and maybe a little bit of a hot sauce and salsa and you have a wonderful balanced meal. But, it doesn’t look like the steamed vegetable, the grilled animal protein, and the baked potato so, then they say, “well can I still have it?” And I’m like you absolutely you can, and you should.
Q: How do you work with people to help them find their roots and bring these foods back into their diets?
A: I have to say that a big part of how I talk to people in nutrition and in the food space there’s a hierarchy and things that we think of as “poor people food” or “basics,” gets pushed down to the bottom and then there’s shame around it. Beans from scratch, for example, “oh, that’s something that poor people eat.” Cereal? “Oh, no good right?” It gets pushed down. So, I actually talk to my patients about what are simple foods, that you may have grown up eating, that are nostalgic for you and full of flavor that we can we bring back? This is because part of what we do in food is, we tell people these huge statements that they take to heart and hold on to as this pinnacle of what I should do, and we miss the nuance. Then people are missing out on wonderfully nutritious food. So, I do a lot of talking about what are those things that you love? How can we make sure that we get them to your plate in a way that supports your health and is mindful? I’m not saying we’re going to go out there and throw sugar and salt on everything. What I’m saying is, how do we have those things show up? And then how do we use the additives intentionally, so that you can actually say, “oh, this is delicious,” and it’s something I want to eat.
Q: How do people mindfully eat and enjoy the foods they love, but also move away from the standard American diet?
A: Yeah, I think it’s so complicated. I often say, like the answer that I’m going to give is 100% from my lens. I’m always aware that something that I say will resonate with some, but not with all. When I’m thinking about mindfulness, the first thing that I say is, you have to have the emotional capital available to actually engage in my mindfulness. When we’re thinking about mindfulness, it doesn’t have to be all the time, and it can be at times when you have that emotional capital available to you. I do think because we have an epidemic of chronic conditions in the U.S. and we are a nation of people who are quite unwell between diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and disorders of lipid metabolism, there’s plenty of space. So, usually what I say to people is, where can you add more plants to your eating pattern? And how can you have that be a constant? Oftentimes, with my patients I’ll prioritize two things in the mindfulness category. One is rest and the other is plants. So, how can you take time to actually rest? Because when we’re not well rested, everything’s ten times harder. Then, how can you add more plants? Those are the big things that I talk about with my patients. After those, we can discuss added sugars, added salts, synthetic and lab made fats and if you’re able pay attention, say do I want this? Do I want this in the form that it’s being presented to me? And if I don’t, what’s the way I can modify it?
Q: What do you think about the plant-based aspect of many of these traditional diets?
A: I love it! From a nutrition health perspective, there’s an abundance of research around the benefits of plants. When we’re thinking about helping to reduce systemic inflammation, keeping blood sugars more stable, and cardiovascular disease, plants show up time and time again. When you’re thinking about regional flavors and tastes, generally when you travel around the globe, people are using herbs and spices. You need, as a way to bring the flavor of the plants up. But in the U.S., you can sit down in a restaurant and have a plate of mixed screens that just has a dressing on it. There’s no herbs. We haven’t done anything to it, and then we wonder, why didn’t you eat your steamed vegetables? Simply making vegetables delicious goes a long way.
Q: How do you approach global food traditions in a culturally humble way?
A: So I always say for the individual you want to start from whatever your pattern of eating is. So, if you’re a vegan or a vegetarian, you’re gonna modify whatever the dishes are, so that it’s in line with your personal pattern of eating. If you have an allergy, you modify for the allergy. If that’s not the case, I often say do your best to try the food in its original form. Just give it a try. Right, without wanting to do anything to it, just trying it in its original form.
No matter what it is. If you don’t have any kind of patterns that you’re following, or like, there’s a reason for the modification. Because I know in the U.S. health and wellness we like to healthify everything. There can be a dish that doesn’t have a vegetable, and we’re like it needs a vegetable, I’m going to add a vegetable to it. Yes, you can have a brownie, and it doesn’t need to be made with black beans and spinach inside. You can have just a brownie and enjoy it. So, I think that’s also a part of cultural humility is being willing to try the dishes just as they are, and then also, of course, if you want to modify it, do so, but to give it a try in its original way and reframe how you’re thinking about healthy. I oftentimes I use this analogy, people feel great when they go to a steakhouse, and they have a Martini, and it’s really a wonderful experience. But then they’ll look down on someone who’s having McDonald’s and a soda. The truth is, from my perspective when I’m thinking about nutrition, behaviors, and patterns there’s a difference, but it’s not a market difference.
Q: How does your book help people explore global dishes and global cuisine?
A: The book is a taste of home around the globe for people. It will be reminiscent or musings of any trips that someone who’s not from the place has taken. We use heritage recipes as the base, and then take culinary license. For example, there’s a Trinidadian callaloo that was inspired by my grandmother’s callaloo, but I used a Chinese broccoli instead of something called a dashing bush, which is a big tarot leaf or spinach, because I wanted a little bit of a different flavor. We played with all the tastes so that it is like, “Hmm, that’s familiar,” and we were really careful to honor the flavors. All the recipes were chef tested in my home kitchen using my pots and pans, and all of my utensils. The idea was that yes, of course, as a dietitian who loves food cooks all the time, but, if we can do it in my kitchen, then that means that people can replicate those flavors, and also the technique. With the hope that we can invite people back into the kitchen as a part of their routine, because I strongly believe that when we’re cooking, that’s when we can modify and play with things. We have gotten so separated from the active, chopping, dicing, and slicing, and we resort to wanting a five minute meal, and sometimes that’s totally warranted, but there’s so much that we can gain from reacquainting ourselves and actively spending time with food. It doesn’t have to be always, but at least sometimes.
Q: What are your tips for cooking with limited time?
A: I’m a huge user of chef’s helper foods. Buying something that’s already chopped, something that’s already diced, something that’s in a can, something that’s frozen as a way to
work around anything that’s lengthy. So, let’s say you know you want to make one of the recipes in the book, and it wants you to slice and dice all this stuff. Does your store have whatever those ingredients are already chopped, so that it cuts down on the work? Absolutely lean into that. The other thing that I like as well is a combination of partially prepared foods with things that you’re going to make at home. I also remind people that salad from a bag is still salad. If you want to buy a salad and wash it and chop it yourself, that’s fantastic. But, the salad from the bag is the same and you should remove any kind of shame around not making it all yourself.
Q: What are your favorite recipes and stories from the book?
A: I don’t have a favorite recipe in the book. I love them all, but my favorite section is the plant section and then the seafood section. Some days it’s the seafood section as my first favorite and then other days the plant section is my favorite, because I really love seafood, and I really love plants. So those two are my favorite. In terms of a story from the book, my favorite was with Sylvia, who was one of the main chefs who tested all the recipes in my kitchen with me. I developed some recipes and she developed some recipes, and we also has six other chefs that submitted recipes, and then we would modify them based on what we had available. The funny part was, I talked about the additives before, and she was always saying, we need more salt, and I was like absolutely no, no more. We had to see what else we could put in that gives it flavor, so a lot of learning was happening in the kitchen. While we really were trying to keep taste at the forefront, but modifying it so it was still healthy and nutritious.
Maya Feller shares one of her favorite plant-based recipes.
Peanut Miso Stew
Mix the peanut butter and miso. Reserve. In a large stockpot over medium-high heat, sauté the onions and carrots in avocado oil for 5 to 7 minutes, until translucent. Add the raw peanuts, black-eyed peas, kombu, and honey, as well as 3 cups of water, and bring to a boil. Cook for approximately 10 minutes, or until the liquid is reduced by a third. Add the peanut-miso mixture and continue cooking for 10 minutes, until thickened. Add the lime juice and zest, cilantro, parsley, and chives to the hot stew. To serve, ladle the hot stew into a bowl and garnish with the thinly sliced jalapeño rings and crunchy peanuts.
Recipe from EATING FROM OUR ROOTS. Copyright © 2023 by Maya Feller
Photography copyright © 2023 by Christine Han
Published by goop Press/Rodale Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, LLC.
Reprinted with permission.
About Maya Feller
Maya Feller, MS, RD, CDN is the founder and lead dietitian at Maya Feller Nutrition. In her practice, her team provides medical nutrition therapy for the management of and risk reduction of non-communicable diseases. Maya Feller believes in providing nutrition education from an anti-bias patient-centered, culturally sensitive approach to help people make informed food choices. Maya shares her approachable, real food-based solutions to millions of people through regular speaking engagements, writing, her social platforms, and as a national nutrition expert on Good Morning America, is a Healthline Medical Advisor, and on the advisory board for SHAPE and Parents, as well as appearing on TODAY Show, Tamron Hall, and in The New York Times, mindbodygreen, Well+Good, Food Network, Martha Stewart, Real Simple, Good Housekeeping, Cooking Light, Eating Well, Prevention, Glamour, SELF, and more. Maya Feller is the author of Eating from Our Roots: 80+ Healthy Home-Cooked Favorites from Cultures Around the World
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