There have been enough popular news media and academic articles about the unhealthy triangle of poverty, limited food choices, and higher risk of poor health.
Such assumptions can sometimes be wrong: I am a living example or shall I say, my family has been a living example that poverty doesn’t always mean living in the black shadow of crappy food choices and lousy diets.
Before anyone throws tomatoes and cheap MacDonald’s hamburgers at my words, I stress it doesn’t mean I don’t support healthy school breakfast programs for underprivileged children, community gardens in low income areas, or feel that nutritional education for the poor, is waste of time.
Patronizing Assumptions About Low-Income Diets
To me, sometimes, over focus on poverty and lower education, as primary determinants to poor health risk and poor diet, is abit overblown. We should step away from bourgeois, patronizing assumptions about the poor and especially those who have lower education than us, as lacking nutritional smarts.
We forget, is some of these folks we may pity, have knowledge of traditional healthy food dishes, healthy attitudes about food diversity and eating in general.
Poor But Committed to Healthy Eating
Take for instance, my mother. Not in best health because she didn’t look after herself consistently through the years of bearing and raising 6 children. If you met her, she doesn’t look like the shining paragon of health nowadays. She barely knows English (and hence, cannot read food labels), didn’t finish high school in China (she has Gr. 10 level), yet she did raise 6 children on a primarily Chinese healthy diet in Canada.
So how did a poor, large family in Canada do it? How did my mother help lay a strong foundation of nutrition and healthy physical development on a shoestring budget –without going to a food bank? Without a blender to make smoothies and pureed soups?
* Having an arsenal of family dishes, that primarily used techniques of stir-frying, steaming or simmering for meats, fresh veggies. In fact, mother rarely deep fried any foods. She was simply afraid of the bubbling oil and a lot of children playing around in a small house.
*Very little or no sugar used in dishes. Not surprisingly, traditional Chinese dishes don’t use sugar nor are there desserts. It was fresh fruit for us daily which mother made sure of this. Sweetened dessert was reserved for occasional ice cream early afternoon in the summer or light sponge cake either bought or steamed at home for birthdays, cookies and candies for special occasions –Christmas and Easter or just a general treat for whole family. 1 can of pop was divided between 2 children.
- Nutritional information my father gleaned from English news, TV. Also his disgust as a Chinese restaurant cook, where the daily sight of richer, and sometimes deep-fried restaurant foods got tiring to see.
- Food was never used as a motivator, to punish or reward us as children for our behaviours. It was just a neutral item, that was necessary to keep us alive.
- Living within a 15-min. walk of a large grocery store. Though we didn’t live in a food desert neighbourhood, we didn’t have a car until I was 14 yrs. old.
- Integrating some dairy foods. Most likely a doctor told them some milk was good for growing babies and children. We had some cheese and much later, yogurt.
- Stock of cookies, candies, chips and pop were kept very low at home, or non-existent most of the time.
- We seldom ate in front of the TV. Since our house was too small for family of 8, we didn’t have a separate dining room. So we ate at the table as a family in the kitchen. At least, no child had their own tv in their bedroom to escape with their meal.
Crappy processed Chinese foods were eventually rejected for home pantry. Mother really didn’t want much jarred Chinese condiments with a ton of salt and other food additives. She had less trust on food safety for processed products from China vs. from North America.
I used to think she was paranoid. But recent news on shocking food safety violations in China, in their quest for a quick buck, have proven her right.
50+ Years Later, Food Palate Footprint on Me
* No interest in pop drinks ever since childhood. Sure I’ll drink a can –once a year. A can of pop sits in my fridge for months.
* No lusting after fried foods. Sure, I’ll eat donuts maybe up to 8-10 times annually, fried calamari or chicken several times per year. I’ve never made deep fried food at home. I have no interest.
* Daily need to have veggies and fruits. When I miss out, a day or 2 later, I’m constipated and sluggish. I feel wrong.
* White rice –only several times annually. This restriction was due to diabetes 2 scare several years ago after blood tests. So I gradually withdrew from daily white rice over a few months.
* Not tempted by chips, chocolate bars and pop that my fellow high school classmates were snapping up, when I volunteered weekly at our high school tuck shop for a year.
My bad habits:
- Desserts more often than I care to count. Influence of knowing Jack and fine gourmet baking from his mother.
- Soft cheeses, prosciutto (too salty).
- Eating mindlessly if I’m under stress or am out socializing.
- Eating in front of the computer. I don’t have a tv.
I submit that I am earning a higher salary than my father for a big family. I’m more educated, yet that has not kicked out my bad habits.
Not surprisingly, immigrants to North America or certain areas of Europe, once they earn some money and venture beyond their family, can easily gain more unnecessary weight and increase their heart disease risk by consuming more foods that have fat, sugar for taste or are processed.
Now, myself and siblings, as adults living in our own households, some of us have slipped off the health wagon. Then we climbed back on, to lose weight and take up an exercise. At least, we are equipped with memory and past knowledge of what it means to be healthy and what balanced, healthy and tasty meals at home, looks like without huge effort, cost and no processed foods.
We can’t deny to even ourselves, we didn’t learn the lessons of nutrition and healthy food underneath our nose, right on our plate.
Keung, Nicholas. “Canadian Living Takes Toll on Immigrant Hearts.” In Toronto Star. Aug. 31, 2015. A study of 800,000 first generation immigrants who settled in Ontario since 1985, which included many East Asians.
Darmon, N. and A. Drewnowski. “Does Social Class Predict Diet Quality”. In American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. May 2008, vol. 87 (no.5).
Studies of dietary habits of lower SES groups have emphasized lack of nutrition knowledge (124), lack of cooking skills, lack of motivation (125, 126), and a general disinterest in cooking (126). It is not clear that such reports are correct. One UK study found that cooking skills showed little differentiation by SES and that lower income groups are more likely to cook than are higher income groups (178). Similar observations were made in Canada (179) and in France (63, 180), where the middle and upper classes cook less and consume more convenience and ready-to-eat foods. Other studies found that low-income groups have adequate cooking skills (155, 181). In very poor families, the lack of cooking equipment will in itself discourage cooking.
A lack of nutrition knowledge (182), apathy toward nutrition prevention messages (183), and an erroneous perception of body weight (184–186) have all been cited as potential explanations for unhealthy dietary habits and high obesity rates among disadvantaged groups. However, nutrition knowledge alone may not necessarily be sufficient to initiate behavioral application of healthy diets (187, 188). Limited time for food shopping and cooking is an important factor influencing food intake among low-income mothers (189).