The Dietary Guidelines for Americans and its associated MyPlate graphic are commonly referenced resources for learning about healthy and nutritious eating. The recently-updated 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans put a stronger focus on meeting dietary recommendations while keeping cultural preferences in mind, and resources highlighting culturally inclusive approaches are valuable tools for translating the general messages of MyPlate and the Dietary Guidelines to more Americans.
This article is part of a series that shows how healthy eating can take on many different forms outside of the Western diet. While for many, meals might not exactly resemble MyPlate, the featured guest authors will demonstrate what healthy eating looks like in their culture, and how many of the food groups and principles can translate across cultures and cuisines. Each article in this series is written by a registered dietitian who is experienced in integrating culturally inclusive approaches into their work.
About the Author
My name is Krista Linares, and I’m a registered dietitian of Cuban and Mexican descent. In my private practice, I help Latina women navigate conditions like polycystic ovarian syndrome and type 2 diabetes while centering and celebrating cultural foods. To share a little bit about my background, both of my parents immigrated to the U.S. from Latin American countries, but I grew up in the Midwest. Because of this, I often felt like food was the main way for me to understand and learn about my heritage. When I became a dietitian, this connection was at the front of my mind, and I wanted to provide space for other Latinas to bring our food culture along with them as they work to improve their health.
What Is Latin American Food?
Latin American food has many different influences, including indigenous, Spanish, and African foodways. Additionally, Latin American food has a lot of diversity and regional variations. Food from the Caribbean area will have its own patterns compared with food from Mesoamerica or South America, for instance. Even within a country like Mexico, there are so many different styles of cuisine and dietary patterns. For example, the Mexican food we are used to in the U.S. is much more similar to northern Mexican food—with its larger use of wheat products, beef, and dairy—than it is to southern coastal Mexican food, which may include more fish, tubers, and acidic flavors. While each region is distinct, I’m addressing Latin America as a whole in this article because of my own heritage (being from two disparate regions of Latin America) and because there are some fundamental similarities, such as influences and staple ingredients.
Some of the most foundational ingredients across Latin America are beans, corn, rice, squash, tomatoes, and peppers. Plantains are a staple in Caribbean countries like Puerto Rico and Cuba, as well as in southern Mexico. Potatoes, on the other hand, are a major staple in Peru and other parts of South America. Another major regional variation in Latin American cuisine relates to spiciness! The spiciness we associate with Latin food in the U.S. is actually pretty unique to Mexico. South American and Caribbean regions of Latin America include fewer spicy flavors than Mexican food does. Other spices, like cumin, oregano, and garlic, are popular all over Latin America, though!
Latin American Meal Patterns
It’s fairly common for lunch to be the biggest meal of the day and eaten with family, whereas breakfast and dinner may be relatively smaller meals. It’s important to note that some foods, like tortillas, rice, and beans, may appear at any meal or time of day. Staple carbohydrates, like corn or plantains, are used as the foundation for many dishes; examples include tamales or pasteles, tortillas, pupusas, and empanadas.
At breakfast, there is a lot of variation in the types of food served. Some of the most traditional breakfast dishes include soups, stews, and egg dishes. It’s also not uncommon for breakfast to consist of a simple coffee with pan dulce (sweet bread).
Lunch and dinner involve similar types of foods, although lunch is typically a bigger, more elaborate meal. At both meals, it’s very likely to see a soup or stew served with either tortillas on the side or a starchy vegetable within the soup itself. Proteins like chicken, beef, or fish are often cooked with vegetables and served alongside rice and beans.
Snacks are an important part of Latin food culture as well. Fruits and vegetables are very popular snacks, including raw fruit and vegetable pieces served with a seasoning (spicy chile seasoning is popular in Mexico), or fresh juices and smoothies. Some of the foods we think of as classic Mexican dishes in the U.S., like tacos and quesadillas, are popular in Mexico but are more commonly seen as a snack.
Vegetables As Flavor
Another key element of Latin food is the use of vegetables for flavor. Sauces are one of the most important elements in Latin cooking and are generally made from vegetables like chiles, tomato and onion, or avocado (like guacamole).
Vegetables are also used as flavorful and crunchy garnishes. For example, curtido is a fermented cabbage slaw that is popular in Central America, while pickled onions are popular in the Dominican Republic.
How Do the MyPlate Food Groups Align With the Dietary Preferences of Latin American Cuisine?
Many dishes are cooked with a vegetable base called sofrito or recaito; one version of this base consists of bell peppers, tomato, onion, and garlic and is used to flavor beans, soups, and stews. Vegetable garnishes consisting of cabbage, radish, onion, or carrots are commonly used to top soups and other main dishes. Fresh salsas can provide tomato, peppers, and onions as well. Other vegetables that are commonly used include many varieties of squash, nopales (cactus paddles), and avocado. Additionally, Latin American cuisine features many starchy vegetables such as potato, sweet potato, cassava (yuca), and others. These are vegetables but are often grouped with starches or carbohydrates when building a plate.
Beans and other legumes are popular across Latin America, and it’s common for beans to be eaten daily (or even multiple times a day). Some of the most commonly used beans are pinto beans, black beans, pink beans, and mayocoba beans (sometimes called Canary or Peruvian beans). Other protein options include fish, seafood, chicken, pork, beef, and eggs.
Corn and rice are two of the most popular grains in Latin cuisine. Corn masa can be used to make tortillas, tamales, and even drinks. Rice is often served with beans. Wheat is also popular in the form of bread or flour tortillas.
There are a wide variety of fruits eaten in Latin cuisine. Tropical fruits like mango, pineapple, and papaya are especially popular. Other common fruits are apples, berries, melons, coconut, and bananas. While foods like avocado, squash, and plantains are technically fruits, they’re often used in savory applications.
Dairy products are common in Latin food, although typically in smaller quantities than in U.S. diets. It’s common to see fresh cheeses, like queso fresco, used as a garnish. Milk is commonly used in desserts and drinks, and fermented milk drinks, like drinkable yogurts, are also popular.
Latin American cuisine has an abundance of foods from each food group in MyPlate. One challenge to interpreting MyPlate within Latin American food is that so many Latin dishes are mixed dishes where all the food groups are cooked together, like caldos (stews). It can be hard to visualize how many vegetables are actually being consumed, since vegetables are often used as the flavor base for other dishes and as garnishes added at the end in the form of salsas or diced or shredded raw vegetables.
Additionally, in some regions of Latin America, the most popular carbohydrate sources are actually starchy vegetables like potato, plantain, and yuca. While grains are familiar in all of Latin America, in regions like the Caribbean and South America, starchy vegetables may be a more popular carbohydrate source. Clients may have questions about where these vegetables fit on the plate, as they could be considered both a vegetable and a carbohydrate source.
The Bottom Line
Many of my clients feel that they have to choose between their health goals and their cultural foods. In these cases, I like to point out some of the nutrition lessons we can learn from Latin food—like how we use vegetables as flavor, and how frequently we consume healthy fiber sources like beans. Every food culture has nourishing, delicious food, and our food culture deserves to be celebrated!
Latin American cuisine is one of many diverse cuisines that can serve as an example of healthy and nutritious eating. This cuisine can broadly encompass the recommendations promoted in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and their associated MyPlate graphic.
Q&A on Culturally Sensitive Approaches to Nutrition
What are some of the challenges that you or your clients/patients have encountered with using resources like MyPlate, and how have you navigated those?
The U.S. style of nutrition and meal preparation treats every ingredient or food group as separate from the others. In most examples of plated food, there is one relatively large protein source and one relatively large vegetable source, and they’re separate from each other. In Latin food, it’s more common for dishes to have many different ingredients present in smaller quantities. For instance, instead of having one vegetable side, I mostly cook my beans with sofrito, then add shredded cabbage and onion on top of my main dish, and maybe have a small serving of pickled or grilled vegetables as a side.
Additionally, a lot of Latin staple foods can also be found across multiple food groups. Beans, for instance, can be considered a protein or a vegetable source, whereas tubers like cassava could be counted as a vegetable or a starchy vegetable. Clients may need guidance in how to think about these types of staple foods.
What assumptions or misconceptions about diets from other cultures do you think are important to address and challenge as we work towards more culturally sensitive approaches in this field?
There is a misconception that emphasizing Latin food as a dietitian means rebuilding food traditions and recipes to be healthier. But I operate from the assumption that our cultural foods are inherently nourishing. It’s easy for dietitians outside of Latin culture to assume that because they can’t see vegetables on the plate in the same way they’re used to, that vegetables just aren’t commonly used, for example.
It’s also easy to view a culture’s cuisine from what we see in media or on restaurant menus, which is usually based less on what people from that culture eat and cook in their homes on a daily basis. For example, most non-Latino dietitians I speak to are surprised to learn that Latinos see soups and stews as a foundational element of Latin cuisine, because most Latin restaurants they go to do not prominently feature these types of meals. I encourage dietitians to let clients tell them what their daily food patterns are, instead of trying to fill in the gap with assumptions.
What guidance would you give to other dietitians about integrating a culturally sensitive approach into their own practice?
It is almost impossible to learn everything you need to know about a given food culture, even your own! I’m Mexican American and Cuban American, but since I grew up in the U.S., I’m still learning things about Latin food every day. There is no end point you are trying to reach in terms of knowledge about another culture. Instead, the goal is to have a foundation of knowledge and resources that allow you to give equitable care to every patient, regardless of their food culture.
One example of inequitable nutrition care is giving your patient a handout on food sources of a nutrient that you recommend increasing in their diet, but none of the examples on the handout include foods from their culture. This creates more work for the client, because they have to either do additional research on their own to figure out how to include their cultural foods, or learn new ways to cook foods that are not familiar to them or that they don’t prefer. Instead of worrying about learning everything there is to know about a specific food culture, turn your focus to making sure your clients get the information they need in ways that fit their lives.