An Introduction to Ethnonutrition

Posted on December 7th, 2011 & filed in Ethnonutrition, Nutrition

Beet borscht is traditionally a Ukrainian dish, made with many types of rich vegetables and flavors.

As a practicing alternative health care practitioner in New York City, I have the affinity to search obscure or forgotten topics that may ultimately benefit the patient. As diseases and disorders of the human organism become endemic and epidemic in the United States, I easily access internet search engines to see what is available for that interested patient. When disappointed by findings, I return to textbooks and resources I have collected over the 27 years in practice and came upon an age old “human ecology” term –Ethnonutrition.

Open up any nutritional herbal or text on superfoods these days (and you are bombarded with a multitude of choices). The Newsweek article, Brain Freeze on my waiting room bulletin board, flooded my mind which tells of this age of “too much information” and how it affects our health and productivity. The Metro, a free local paper, lists the Best Foods for Building Muscles as pumpkin seeds, salmon, spinach, eggs and oats. Again, I empathize with the patient and wonder which one of these I might consume regularly.

As an adjunct to my chiropractic practice, I do nutritional consults and often suggest food alternatives to various supplementations which come in a table ranking nutrient dense listings vs. mg./serving of calcium for example. The list begins with bok choy cabbage (158mg), turnip greens, spinach, collards, mustard greens, dandelion greens, beet greens, seaweed (kelp raw), and so on. As I peruse the list with my patient, we tend to scoot down to parmesian cheese, skip kefir, sardines, okra pods and goat milk and again highlight cheddar cheese, chocolate milk and get a little excited about the bottom of the list: apple (10 mg.), chicken breast (13 mg.), and sirloin steak 8oz. (26 mg.).

I try to disguise my disapproving frown and instead raise my eyebrows with a suggestion of sticking it to their refrigerator with the attempt to incorporate at least 10 of the items we checked off and experimenting with the others. It is more of a lesson in awareness than expecting most Americans to substitute the Standard American Diet (SAD diet) with these foreign healthy options.

I find that questioning my patients with food diaries can sometimes be misleading for eating is a very private matter and our choices on paper tend to be an invasion of this privacy.  So, we talk about the changing seasons and how it affects our appetites and share the emotional pleasures we gain from food. I am an enthusiastic proponent of the “Slow Food” movement and talk about the honeybees I keep and the mischief the goats get into on a daily basis. Lately, a big topic has been comfort foods.


Ethnonutrition is the study of how a living organism assimilates food and uses it for growth and replacement of tissues pertaining to a race or people. The scientific basis which gives this specialty credibility is that certain cultures do not have the capability or proper enzymes to break down certain products. The connection with our evolutionary nutrition which I believe is buried deep in our DNA memory banks (possibly associated with the pineal gland or “third eye” located within the brain (but more on this at another time),  is the proper direction to consult when we are not feeling our optimal and/or are sick.  It is what conscientious mothers search out and attempt to feed  their infants and growing children.  It is what we should be feeding our elderly. It is what all people of diverse cultural backgrounds in this melting pot should be aware of.

Some examples of associated foods and their origins in ethnonutrition are obvious such as:

  • Feta cheese – Greece,
  • Red Cabbage, Sauerkraut – Germany
  • Buckwheat, Sunflower oil – Ukraine
  • Oxtail Tomato Sauce – Italy
  • Star Fruit – Philippines
  • Bok Choy – Asian

These were just a few of the examples/responses that I received when I asked my patients about cherished recipes, memories of home cooked meals and simply favorites. I intend to explore optimal eating habits of world cultures and share this data as it applies to prevention and treatment of diabetes and other chronic preventable diseases. It is our innate link to the path of health and recovery.

Questions? Comments? Please feel free to e-mail the author at Thank you for your feedback in advance!