Cultural Aspects of Food Choices in Various Communities of Elders

Article excerpt

In the next twenty years, members of ethnic minority groups will represent 26.4 percent of the burgeoning older population, a considerable growth from 16 percent of the older population in 2000 (Administration on Aging and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2004b). Multiethnic communities are increasingly common in die United States. While the proportion of non-Hispanic whites will decline in the period between 2000 and 2050, other major edmic groups, including African Americans, Hispanics, and Asians and Pacific Islanders, will all increase substantially (Administration on Aging and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2004b).

Food-related practices of older people from any ethnic group can present challenges for a number of reasons, including increased requirements for important nutrients because of physiological changes associated with aging and pathological effects of some chronic conditions. And of course, eating practices are ruled not only by physiological demands and food availability and choices but also by cultural norms, knowledge and information, and access to food, which is often determined by physical ability and economic conditions. People eat to satisfy personal and biological needs in the context of these factors and a number of others framed by society and culture. For immigrants from diverse ethnic communities, their traditional cultural foods and the preservation of their accustomed ways of dealing with food are both sources of comfort in a foreign environment and a means of maintaining their cultural identity (Jones and Darling, 1996). For all cultural groups, foods have multiple connotations: biological (food provides essential nutrients), health (healthy foods promote wellness), religious (certain foods are sacred), and social (foods contribute to maintenance of traditions and social structure).

Within its social connotation, food serves various functions, including expressions of hospitality, goodwill, prestige, and status (Jones and Darling, 1996). Kaufman-Kurzrock (1989) identified five food classification systems developed by different cultures: (1) food versus nofood, or what is edible or not; (2) sacred versus profane foods; (3) food as medicine; (4) social foods; and (5) opposing categories, such as the hot-cold system developed by some Hispanic groups, or the yin-yang (cold-hot) Chinese principles (Kaufman-Kurzrock, 1989).

Modifying food-related behaviors may have favorable or deleterious effects in the aging process. The challenge for those attending to the nutritional needs of older adults is to identify the cultural and behavioral strategies they practice while adjusting to the changing energy and nutrient requirements associated with aging. Whether and how elders make changes in dietary practices depends to some extent upon the following: cultural beliefs about appropriate food consumption in the presence of functional limitations due to disease processes, cultural beliefs about healing properties of food, and cultural attitudes as gatekeepers of cultural traditions. When working with elders in the multicultural United States, it is critical to consider the ethnic, cultural, and social aspects of food behaviors if service providers are to adequately deliver more culturally sensitive, effective nutrition services and programs.

CULTURE AND EATING BEHAVIORS AND PATTERNS

Whether an ethnic community is indigenous, has been in this place for centuries, or recently immigrated to the United States, each developed its own norms and cultural behaviors around food and eating practices, some of which were maintained over various generations, some of which have been lost, and some of which are just making their mark in this country. The food-related practices of older adults who are recent immigrants, for example, may be in a constant state of restructuring and remodeling, while they balance the old and the new.

Which foods are regarded as "ethnic" foods varies over time and in different places and according to the degree of acculturation of the ethnic group using them (Dwyer and Bermudez, 2003). …