why I love diet diversity
Here’s the thing… people eat food not nutrients. It can be easy to lose sight of that when trying to improve nutritional status of any person in any country. The optimal diet easily loses the battle to food cravings, celebrations, emotional eating, cultural foods, or convenience. The food we eat creates shared experiences with our friends, families, and communities. It is a core tenet of culture. It is an indulgence as much as it serves the function of nourishing our bodies. So how can we integrate the importance of food with the importance of nutrition? For me, the answer is diet diversity.
Diet diversity, as the name implies, eating a variety of different foods from a variety of different food groups. In our community workshop groups in the B2T initiative, we defined food groups based on the role in the body. The energy food group includes foods rich in carbohydrates which provide energy to the body (i.e. maize, sweet potato, potato, rice, grains, legumes). The protector food group includes foods rich in micronutrients that help protect the body from getting sick (i.e. vegetables, fruits, legumes). The constructor food group includes foods that help build the muscles of the body (i.e. meat, plant-based protein, legumes, beans). The brain energy food group includes high quality fats that help with brain development (i.e. coconut, avocado, fortified oil). Instead of focusing on promoting one food or foods with concentrated sources of a particular nutrient, this approach focuses on promoting a range of different foods.
One of the questions we get asked the most during the groups is, “what food group does cookies go in?” The answer is obviously none! But the point is that just because a food doesn’t belong to one of the four food groups listed above, doesn’t mean you can’t eat it. It just means that you need to limit those foods. So, by promoting diet diversity, people still have control over what they are eating. They can still eat what they feel like eating. The final choice is up to them. But by encouraging eating a range of nutritious foods alongside the other foods they like to eat, there is more of a chance that nutrient consumption will increase.
We had a shining example of this lesson recently. In the workshops, households have been asked to set a nutrition and food purchasing action that they want to try during the week. This week, we asked households how things went when they tried this action. One participant had decided to try eating matapa, a dish of stewed green leaves made with peanuts. It is absolutely delicious (especially with coconut rice), but its also nutrient dense since the water that the leaves are cooked in remains in the dish. When asked how it was, she said she really didn’t like eating matapa but she wanted to try it anyway. This is just the lesson we all have to learn isn’t it? Would I prefer to eat a giant bowl of pasta every night for dinner? Absolutely. But I know I need to eat a variety of vegetables, high quality proteins, and other types of whole grains.
So here’s something for you to try this week – can you set a nutrition and food purchasing goal this week? Try eating and buying a different food than you’re used to from each of the food groups! Energy – try barley, quinoa, brown rice, sweet potatoes. Protectors – try beets, green leafy vegetables (try making matapa!), baked squash, radishes… eat the rainbow! Constructors – try beans, lentils, fish, eggs! Brain energy – try avocado, coconut, coconut oil.