Keto Diet and Cultural Insensitivity
In Mexico or Guatemala, a meal is not a meal unless it is accompanied by a steaming pile of fresh corn tortillas. In China, over 143 million metric tons or rice were consumed domestically in 2019, which is about 226 pounds of rice per person per year. In many other parts of the world, grains, beans, and other legumes continue to make up the foundation of traditional diets. One of the reasons why the Keto Diet and other low carb nutritional programs have not been enthusiastically adopted by different cultures around the world is due to the tradition and importance of grain and bean-based diets. In some cases, strict guidelines prescribed by avid Keto Diet practitioners eschewing grains and legumes can be culturally insensitive, thus further distancing large segments of the population from the potential benefits of a low-carb diet.
The Role of the Agricultural Revolution in Changing Diets
Around 10,000 years ago, the hunter and gatherer societies of our ancestors gradually settled into more permanent agricultural communities. The agricultural revolution is often heralded by some historians as the “beginning of civilization.” While it is true that the permanent settlement of agrarian communities allowed for urban cities to flourish and for the human population to increase, it also led to severe environmental degradation, increased hierarchical stratification in society, and created an overall decrease in standards of living. Research from Emory University finds that “when populations around the globe started turning to agriculture around 10,000 years ago, regardless of their locations and type of crops, a similar trend occurred: The height and health of the people declined.”
Yuval Noah Harari, author of the book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind believes that a handful of plant species, including wheat, rice, and potatoes domesticated Homo Sapiens, rather than vice versa. He sums up the agricultural revolution thus:
Studies of ancient skeletons indicate that the transition to agriculture brought about a plethora of ailments, such as slipped disks, arthritis, and hernias. Moreover, the new agricultural tasks demanded so much time that people were forced to settle permanently next to their wheat fields. This completely changed their way of life. We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us.
Despite the fact that the agricultural revolution caused harm to bodies and the soil and probably even lowered the life expectancy of the time, the resulting 10,000 years of history led to an enormous diversity of cultures as our species spread throughout the world. In different regions of the world, the culinary traditions of these diverse agricultural societies tended to focus on the dual cultivation of a staple carbohydrate and a staple plant-based protein.
In Mesoamerica, the Aztec and Mayan peoples developed a diet based on the cultivation of corn and beans. In most of Asia, rice and lentils, chickpeas, or mung beans tended to be the main dietary staples. The Incan Empire of South America developed a diet based on thousands of tubers, quinoa, and a type of Andean lupine bean known as tarwi. In the colder climates of Europe, wheat and peas were the main foods for small agricultural settlements. Of course, all of these agrarian cultures also raised animals, hunted and fished, and included other fruits and vegetables in their meals. However, the combination of a staple grain and legume was the foundation of their culinary traditions.
Changes to Traditional Agrarian Diets
Only within the last 70 years or so have some segments of the world´s population begun to replace these traditional dietary patterns with a wider assortment of food. In most “developed” countries, the globalized food system offers people a tremendous variety and diversity of foods from different corners of the globe. With this increased availability and diversity, many consumers are able to create specific nutritional goals and livelihoods. In fact, recent polls suggest that more than one out of every three Americans are currently following a specific diet or eating pattern. The Classical Keto Diet, which radically reduces carbohydrate consumption to between 15 and 30 grams of net carbohydrates per day, or 5 to 10 percent of total calories, has been one of the most popular diets across the country. It was the most “googled” diet in 2018 and continues to show solid signs of growth.
Despite this widespread popularity, the Keto Diet continues to be mostly followed by people in the United States, with limited adoption by consumers from other countries. Certain ethnic groups, agrarian populations, and communities with limited income continue to rely on the traditional agrarian diet mostly made up of grains and some sort of legume.
Cultural Identities Formed from Food
Many people might have trouble adopting the Keto Diet due to socioeconomic issues (a steak dinner is almost always going to be more expensive than beans and tortillas). According to one study analyzing the worldwide use and tolerability of the Keto Diet for the treatment of epilepsy, “common difficulties included avoiding rice intake, tolerating higher fat-to-protein and carbohydrate ratios (e.g., 4:1), finding specific nutritional labels on foods, and handling the growing interest from large populations with limited resources.”
However, many traditional, agrarian societies also form important elements of their cultural identity around what they eat. The specific culinary patterns of population groups don’t only play a major role in cultural traditions, but also form strong territorial identities. In Mesoamerica, for example, the Mayan creation myth says that humanity was made from corn, after failed attempts by the gods to make humans from mud and trees. In South America, Axomamma is the goddess of potatoes in Inca mythology and is one of the daughters of Pachamama, the earth mother. Even today, most villages have a particularly odd-shaped potato to worship and ask for a good harvest. Similarly, a popular Chinese legend states that the goddess Guan Yin took pity on starving peasants by squeezing milk from her breasts to fill the empty stalks of rice.
The Keto Diet and Cultural Insensitivity
For people whose cultural identity is so extensively connected to the foods that they eat for survival, the prescriptions of the Keto Diet can seem to be culturally insensitive. People whose ancestors survived on certain grains and legumes for thousands of years might find it insulting when a nutritionist recommends abandoning that diet, boldly claiming that the staple foods are inherently unhealthy. It is worth recognizing, however, that the diverse whole grains and pulses developed by traditional cultures are much healthier than the highly processed, monoculture, and chemically-soaked grains and soybeans that are an integral part of the industrial food system of today.
Despite these challenges, the Keto Diet and other low-carb diets can certainly be adopted by people from any culture who are looking to make changes in their nutrition and lifestyle.
A study that looked at the challenges of using the Ketogenic diet for treating childhood epilepsy in South Korea states that “currently in Korea, there have been more than 500 patients treated with the Keto Diet with an annual enrollment of 70 patients in a single clinic. Most cases are satisfied with the outcome of the diet. Like many other Asian countries, it was not easy to diverge from traditional dietary concepts, but success with convincing families and doctors to use the KD was possible when the diet’s efficacy became clear.”
The study goes on to conclude that “although Asian countries have different food cultures with higher carbohydrates and less fat composition than those of customary Western diets, the Keto Diet can be successfully applied as an effective therapeutic modality for intractable childhood epilepsies in this part of the world.”
As many traditional cultures around the world, unfortunately, begin to adopt “western diets” characterized by refined sugars and other carbohydrates, low-carb diets, when presented in a culturally sensitive way, can make sense for people from diverse ethnic backgrounds.