A healthy diet is considered key to improving or maintaining overall health. But according to new research, whether one adheres to such a diet may depend on how well one fits with their country’s culture.

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Researchers found adults in the U.S. who better fit with the nation’s culture of independence were more likely to have a healthy diet.

In a study published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, researchers suggest individuals with a better cultural fit are more likely to engage in healthy eating.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans say a healthy diet is one that is high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, low in saturated fats, cholesterol, salt, and added sugars, and which includes lean meats, poultry, eggs, and low-fat dairy products.

According to the Centers for Disease and Prevention (CDC), adhering to such a diet can reduce the risk of overweight and obesity, which can lower the likelihood of chronic diseases, including high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and some forms of cancer.

However, it goes without saying that not all of us stick to the recommendations when it comes to healthy eating; a report from the CDC last year revealed that less than 18 percent of adults in the U.S. eat enough fruits, and less than 14 percent consume enough vegetables, while another CDC report found more than 90 percent of Americans consume too much salt.

While the CDC and other health organizations have launched initiatives in an attempt to encourage Americans to eat healthily, the new study suggests that such initiatives may yield more success if they incorporate U.S. culture.

Led by Cynthia Levine, of the Department of Psychology at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL, the research team analyzed the dietary habits of adults from the U.S. and Japan.

Both countries have very different cultures, the researchers note; U.S. culture has more emphasis on independence and the right to make one’s own decisions, while Japanese culture is more focused on interdependence and maintaining good relationships.

All study participants reported how often they consumed certain foods each week, including fish, vegetables, and sugary drinks. The team also gathered information on their eating habits when under stress.

Additionally, participants were asked to rate how much they agreed or disagreed with statements that aimed to determine how well they fit into the culture of their country.

Such statements included, “I act in the same way no matter who I am with” (representing independence), and “My happiness depends on the happiness of those around me” (representing interdependence).

Subjects with greater scores on independence had a better fit with U.S. culture, while those with higher scores on interdependence had a better cultural fit in Japan.

The study results revealed that Americans who scored higher on independence were more likely to follow a healthy diet – which included higher amounts of fish and vegetables, and a lower intake of sugary drinks – than those who scored lower on independence.

Additionally, Americans who were more independent were less likely to use food as a coping mechanism when feeling stressed.

“In the U.S., having choice and control and being independent are very important,” says Levine. “Giving people lots of healthy choices or allowing people to feel that they have control over whether they eat healthy options is likely to foster healthier eating.”

Among Japanese adults, the team found those who scored higher on interdependence had healthier eating habits than those who had lower scores on interdependence.

“Instead, in Japan, promoting healthy eating is likely to be most effective when it builds on and strengthens social bonds,” says Levine.

Overall, the researchers say their findings suggest a person’s cultural fit may influence what foods they eat, and that healthy eating plans should take culture into account.

Our results suggest that if you want to help people to eat healthier – or if you want to promote any type of healthy behavior – you want to understand what meaning that behavior has in that culture, and what motivates people to be healthy in that culture.”

Cynthia Levine

The researchers now plan to conduct further studies assessing how culture may influence everyday behaviors.

“We would like to explore how these cultural differences in the meanings of common behaviors can be utilized to encourage healthy eating or healthy behaviors,” adds Levine.

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