Module 8: Diets in Cross Cultural Perspectives


In subsistence based societies, most peoples’ daily activities are directed by food procurement and food is not usually regarded as a given. All foods are not equal- some form the core of the diet and are considered daily fare. Others are relished and elevated to favored status. Some are eaten out of necessity and some are relegated to foods eaten out of dire need. Food-preference patterns are embedded within the social, economic, historic and political contexts, and may vary with immediate circumstances.

Within communities, food-preference patterns vary because of gender, age, personal experiences, as well as economic and social factors. The value and status of a food item may change depending on the abundance and availability of dietary items. In this module we will review dietary data obtained from three different populations and discuss how these dietary practices compare to our own.


1. To learn about the dietary patterns found in different societies.

2. To learn about the use of standards and the applicability of standards across cultures.

3. To review the basics of nutrition, the methods used in nutritional anthropology, and the concepts of an adequate diet.


Comparing Diets Across Cultures

A. The Thai-Lao (Isan) of northeastern Thailand: The semi-arid environment of the Northeast greatly influenced the traditional subsistence system and other adaptations to the habitat. Traditionally, the people in the Northeast adjusted to variability in these habitat factors through the development of a combined subsistence system, in which they complemented their reliance on the staple rice and other subsistence crops with a large input from wild food. The rich flora and fauna in the Northeast provide a vast array of edible and useful plants and animals that are gathered for a wide variety of purposes, including food, building material, crafts, medicinal use, and religious purposes. These indigenous practices and the knowledge that they represent have been acquired over many generations and are deeply ingrained in regional Thai culture. The diet, characterized by a staple core of glutinous rice, fish, and fish products, is embellished with a wide variety of local wild and semi-domesticated plants and animals. These important items — collected from forests, upland fields, rice paddies, gardens, house areas, canals, ponds, swamps, rivers, and dam areas — contribute valuable nutrients. Coupled with a variety of cooking methods, they provide important nutrients, add diversity to a potentially monotonous diet and provide food security in times of seasonal and unpredictable scarcity .

Northeastern Thai cuisine is distinct from the cuisine of the Central, Northern and Southern regions of Thailand, although overlap exists. The ingestion of meals is often guided by the qualities of taste, smell, and texture, which also guide health-promoting behavior. Flavoring is a critical marker, a defining characteristic of cuisine which imparts identification, a sense of familiarity, and a sense of tradition. Isan cuisine is typically distinguishable by its hot, salty flavors which are primarily imparted by the use of chilies and a heavy infusion from pla ra/ pla daek. Pla ra is a thick fermented fish sauce which is made by combining fish with salt, water, rice bran or fried raw rice. The ingredients are mixed and stored in pottery crocks for at least three weeks. It maybe kept and used for a year or more. The most commonly discussed flavoring principles revolve around the taste combination of salty, sweet, sour, astringent and spicy (hot) and other common flavorings include: garlic, lemon grass, ginger, galangal, several types of basil, small red onions and fish sauce naam pla. (Adapted from Moreno-Black 1998)

Isan Dietary Material

B. The Afro-Ecuadorian population of Ecuador: The present day Afro-Ecuadorian population in the Valley of El Chota are descendants of blacks who were brought to the highlands of Ecuador during the 17th century by the Jesuit Order Compañía de Jesús, to work as slaves in the sugar cane plantations and properties acquired by the order . As typical of Afro-Ecuadorians, the majority of San Luqueños consumed steamed rice on a daily basis (98%). Bread constitutes another commonly consumed item and it is usually eaten during breakfast and mid-afternoon as a snack with coffee. Noodles are consumed in the form of noodle soup made with water, some milk, onions and potatoes. Non-animal sources of protein such as beans and legumes are more commonly eaten than meat products. The most commonly eaten meat products are chicken and eggs. However, eggs are consumed while chicken and other animal products are eaten on a weekly basis. Eggs fried or eaten as omelettes (tortillas) are eaten most frequently on a daily basis (46%). Pork is the preferred meat during festivities; in is eaten fried (frittata) and occasionally roasted. Cheese is consumed by 54% of the population on a daily basis. The quantities eaten are very small, usually one small piece of cheese is eaten with bread, or one piece of cheese would be added to the soup (for the whole family). Milk is eaten by 21 %of the population on a daily basis. Milk is usually added to coffee or soup, and it is rarely drunk by itself. Café con leche ( similar to latte) is a delicacy and is more regularly drunk by wealthier families. It is noteworthy that respondents do not consume a wide variety of vegetables on a daily basis. Respondents mentioned 15 vegetables. Onions, tomatoes, carrots, and bell peppers are commonly eaten on a daily basis. These vegetables are added to soups, or eaten in the form of a salad. Green bananas, ripe bananas (both eaten fried as accompaniment to a meal), cabbage and lettuce are also commonly eaten. Eleven fruits were named by respondents. Some of these fruits, such as mango, papaya, tomate de árbol, and orange are commonly made into juice and consumed at lunch.

A significant number of the population reported drinking coffee and herb tea on a daily basis (79%, 67% respectively). Alcoholic beverages such as beer, puro (alcohol made from sugar cane) and rum are also consumed throughout the month. Puro and beer are more commonly drunk on Sundays, during the regular weekly celebrations, while rum is more commonly drunk in special family or community festivities. Sugar is consumed by a 100 % of the population on a daily basis. Other sweets and snacks such as potato chips, ice cream and candy are also consumed. The majority of the population used vegetable oil, the second most common oil is lard. Animal oil is the least common type of oil. The cooking method depends on the type of food that is cooked. For example, deep fry is a common method to cook meat, green and ripe bananas and eggs. Soups are boiled. Vegetables are eaten raw, unless they are added to soups, in which case they are also boiled. Fruits are also eaten raw or blended in juices. Beans and rice are steamed. Salt is consumed by 100 % of the population on a daily basis. Condiments such as annatto, cumin, pepper, sazonador (a prepared condiment with a number of herbs and other condiments) are commonly used to add flavor. (Adapted from Guerron-Montero & Moreno-Black 1998).

Ecuador Dietary Material

C. The Quechua and Aymara of Bolivia and Peru: The Quechua and Aymara are Amerindians who live in the Andean region of Peru and Bolivia. High altitude zones present a number of stresses which challenge human population and have resulted in biological and cultural adaptations. Problems associated with living at high altitude include: hypoxia, or low oxygen pressure, cold, aridity, low biological productivity, and solar radiation. The Andean populations cope with low productivity through a number of subsistence pattern and dietary adaptations. Terracing of agricultural plots, trade with populations at lower altitudes, food preservation techniques, and domestication of the llama, alpaca and guinea pig are some of the important adaptations which have enabled the population to obtain sufficient energy and nutrients to sustain themselves. The diet is characterized by a core of carbohydrate foods such as potatoes, rice, bread, noodles and bananas. These items are acquired through household agricultural practices and purchase. The consumption of soups or broths is common, occurring in 49 – 33% of the sample. The meal pattern of the sample of 117 individuals was relatively homogenous. Most individuals consume a breakfast of a roll and warm beverage, usually coffee or tea sweetened with sugar. Butter, margarine or other spreads are not used very frequently. A light snack of an egg, gelatin, bread or leftovers is sometimes consumed at mid-morning. The largest meal of the day is usually eaten at mid-day. It commonly consists of a soup and a segundo consisting of meat, rice, pasta or potato, and sometimes a vegetable accompaniment, often in the form of a spicy sauce. Most individuals also reported having a late afternoon snack usually a sweetened beverage and bread. If an evening meal was consumed , it consisted of a soup and / or leftovers from the mid-day meal. (Adapted from Moreno-Black 1983)

Bolivia Dietary Material

ACTIVITY: (Due: See Blackboard)

Group Activity – This Assignment is being revised and will be updated shortly.

Module #8 Dietary Guidelines


Notes – Introduction to Nutritional Anthropology
  • New Material: Food Choice
    • Eating is a personal act:
      • Focal point – individual food consumer ( Us the confused consumer)
        • How do we decide what to eat?
        • We can develop a rudimentary model of food selection:
          • Belasco’s culinary triangle

Normally people decide what to eat based on a rough negotiation – a pushing and tugging- between the dictates of convenience and identity.


encompasses such variables as prices, availability, and ease of preparation, which is related to the requirements of energy, time, and skill. These concerns involve such questions as: Can I get it?, Can I afford it?, Can I make it?


stands for personal pleasure, creativity, the sense of who you are and where you are. Includes such factors as: taste, family, and ethnic background, personal memories (the association between particular foods and past events, both good and bad). At the identity point, food choices are shaped by rituals, symbols, and etiquette. Deeply rooted in childhood, tradition, and community membership, the culinary dictates of identity are hard to change, because they raise such questions as “How do I eat it?”, “Should I like it?”, and “Is this what people like me eat?”


  • cuisine
  • flavor principle
  • etiquette
  • festive ritual


  1. Individual responsibility:
    1. care of self Cultural construction of health-/ illness – diet link
  2. Responsibility to others
    1. Care of others – feeding & nurturance
    2. a sense of responsibility involves being aware of the more distant consequences of one’s actions (being aware of your place in the food chain) – of the enormous impact we have on nature, animals, other people, and the distribution of power and resources all over the globe.In eating even the simplest dish we join a chain of events linking people and places across the world and across time, too – past and future.Having a sense of responsibility entails both remembering how the food got to you (the past) and anticipating the consequences down the line (the future).

Wendell Berry: “to eat responsibly is to understand and enact, as far as one can, the complex relationship” between the individual and the food system.

Responsibility at this level is often the weakest of the three forces that push and pull us.

U.S. Dietary Choices:
What are the factors that influence our dietary patterns?


Role of Classification System:

  1. Serves to distinguish humanness
  2. Provides means to distinguish edible from not edible
  3. Part of system which is used to conceptualize the natural environment

Classification System: emic/etic

Super food: usually carbohydrate staple

  • provides bulk of calories
  • production and preparation important cultural activities
  • interwoven with local religion, mythology, history
    • creation myth: origin of item, origin of people linked to acquisition of item
  • ritual assoc with agricultural tasks
  • crop may be represented by deity
  • can be stored

Prestige food:

  • difficult to obtain
  • rare, expensive, elaborate preparation
  • often used in special rituals
  • limited status therefore confers status

Foods Associated with health beliefs: All of these categories share the idea that foods in them are perceived as influencing health and well being.

  • Body Image food
    • body physiology
    • balance
    • related to health and illness
  • Sympathetic food (bestow qualities)
    • bestows qualities on people
  • Physiologic group foods
    • sex differences
    • life states: menstruation, pregnancy, lactation
    • child, adult, elderly



  1. Length (temporary or permanent)
  2. Size of human group involved (kin group, social/professional group, social class, gender, etc.)
  3. Periods of life cycle affected (infancy, pregnancy, lactation etc.)
  4. Category of foods involved – i.e. animal protein, a particular food, food that share certain properties (fried or watery);etc.
  5. Reasons – i.e. effect on health
  6. Impact on nutrition / health of group under study
Assignment (See assignments page)