For my medical training, over the past 3 years I’ve lived in 6 cities. Now as I plan to live in Palo Alto for the next 2 years and have time to reflect, I realize this travel has shaped a simple opinion in my mind: health is linked to environment. Diet, weather, way of life all influence our health and are dependent on where we live. There are healthcare disparities that also depend on where we live. Therefore, come with me to revisit the places I’ve lived over the past 3 years to further understand why health is determined by the area in which you live.
Part 1: Health and diet and various cities in North America
Decide for yourself if the area you live in decides the foods you eat, healthy or not.
Health is linked to diet. Eating less salt, fat, and sugar is healthier. In saying that, a lot of what we eat depends on what is available to us. Cost, local produce as well as local cuisine and culture all determine what foods are available. Personal taste has a role in what we eat. So which has more of an impact on our health? In my opinion, diet is determined by where you live and it’s up to the individual to pick out healthier foods. Let’s see what my diet was like in all those cities to see if I was able to eat sensibly.
Los Angeles, my hometown and a good starting point for my journeys, for the simple reason that everything I would find abroad was already here in my home city. I eat everything when in LA, but one thing consistently I eat here that is lacking elsewhere are all the salads. Salad is such a part of the culture that places like Souplantation are commonplace—a whole restaurant around the idea of a salad bar. Obviously having healthy foods as part of the culture makes it easier to choose healthier options. And luckily my taste aligns well with all the salad available in LA.
Next is Chicago. Most common meals were fish/chips/peas, milanesa (breaded steak), and meatballs—it was so cold in the winter we wanted comfort food. By far the best meal was the pizza! If you haven’t had the pizza pie, you must! But something I found in Chicago but not elsewhere was the best-sliced bread I’ve ever had: Arnold Flax and Fiber with 4 g fiber per slice. This brings me to a point: despite all the tasty junk food I was eating, I was getting basic nutrients daily in my bread. It is possible to choose a healthy option despite the availability of a lot of unhealthy options!
I lived in Guadalajara, Mexico for around 2 years. Food I often ate: bread plus beans/cheese/salsa, milanesa, sushi (usually rolls with cream cheese), fresh cut up fruit with lime and chili powder. The best thing about food in Guadalajara is carne asada, thin delicious steak cooked well done…yum! Next best thing chorizo and melted cheese—queso fundido con chorizo. Another yum! It is more obvious living in a foreign country that culture dictates the kinds of food available even though this is a phenomenon common to everywhere. Largely it is the Tapatio culture (a Tapatio is a person from the area around Guadalajara) that has determined what kind of foods you eat in Guadalajara; it is up to individual taste to pick out the healthier options. For instance, the fruit was available, but it was up to me to include it in my diet. As always, there is a choice.
Miami—I only stayed for 3 months and honestly all I remember eating frequently is the Cuban sandwich (ham, roasted pork, cheese, pickles, mustard) which is so good. No great conclusions can be made from this statement; I just thought you’d want another suggestion to try!
Jackson, Mississippi in the Deep South has amazing food, with fried chicken, fried catfish, crawfish, and BBQ pork ribs as common and delicious foods. Meals at home included our usual staple (spaghetti, milanesa, chili, chicken or beef curry). My drink of choice was sweet or un-sweet tea—I like both when people usually like one or the other. Learning from my experience in Jackson, the foods you choose to make for yourself at home can and should be at odds to the ones you choose when you are dining out: splurge on fried foods when out, and rely on baked ones when dining in. Note, this is a biased, salad eating California girl’s observations; and often, culture and availability and taste all align on foods that are not traditionally considered healthy, i.e. fried, in which case it requires a concerted effort to eat differently out of the home from inside the home. After saying all this, I left Jackson 10 pounds heavier than I arrived.
Last but not least is Palo Alto, California, my new home. I’ve noticed my lunch on a daily basis has been burritos, and sandwiches often with alfalfa sprouts (no joke). My restaurant dining experience has been with sushi, noodles, fish, and steak. New foods we have tried since coming to the area include Quinoa. So yes, culture and availability have dictated me eating healthier options, but what about taste? I must confess I have eaten at the fast food chain closest to my new home: jack in the box, simply because I miss eating fat!
Conclusions, I ate a lot of milanesa no matter where I went! So yes, although there are differences regionally and a lot of what you eat depends on what is available—there is definitely a hunger/taste factor! I suspect the key is to enjoy in the first place healthy, cheap foods that are found everywhere…carrots!?! This might be wishful thinking for a lot of people, in which case it comes down to the basics. Reducing empty calories from the drink you most often consume (choosing un-sweet versus sweet tea) and increasing the nutrients in the bread you most often eat is much easier than forgoing the delicious local cuisine. Choosing healthy options while cooking for your self is less tempting than “eating healthy” when going out and missing out on the fried pickles in Jackson or the pizza pie in Chicago.
Where we live influences our diet. It’s up to us to make the right choices!