Is it really ethnic food?

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

October 2005

There's a big difference between the pizza that you'll find in Rome, Italy and the one that they serve in Rome, New York. Go to a neighborhood restaurant near the Roman coliseum and you'll be served a smallish pizza with thin crust and about half as much cheese as a New York pizza. In Naples your waiter will set before you a serving of pasta that is about one-sixth the size of that which you'll find in most Italian restaurants in America.

Portion size isn't the only thing that separates genuine ethnic from similar ethnoid. From India to Italy, native dishes are usually heavy on vegetables and light on meat. Beef belongs to the affluent. For the rest of the population red meat is a feast day dish. And they don't waste much of the cow! You won't find kidneys, brains and intestines on many stateside menus in ethnic restaurants but those things don't go to waste elsewhere.

Don't expect to find your favorite Chinese foods in China, French fries in France, or 1500-calorie tortes in Vienna. Foreign-sounding restaurants in the United States cater to our appetite for salt, sugar, fat and red meat.

There's a difference between American-Italian food and a Mediterranean diet. The latter is becoming the champion of nutritionists because it's heart-healthy, a fact that is easy to support with reams of articles in respected medical journals. Carbohydrates provide half or more of the calories but they come from green leafy vegetables, legumes, whole grain bread, cereal and potatoes, not just from pasta. The Mediterranean diet is high in fat, almost all of it from olive oil. No complaints from the cardiologists there.

Asians represent about a third of the globe's population. The land mass and island chains throughout which they spread are enormously diversified in geography and climate. No wonder that their cuisine is so varied. Rice is the common staple of the true Asian cuisine so it's no surprise that it comes with almost anything that you order from the menu. The rest of the true Asian diet consists of vegetables. Lots of meat dishes appear in Chinese restaurants here only because Americans clamor for them. The typical Asian family enjoys it only on special occasions.

Unfortunately, the American ethnic cuisine is taking root outside the U.S. Europeans and Asians are beginning to imitate our worst habits. Obesity has literally tripled in countries such as China, England and Germany in a single generation. So have obesity-related diseases: type 2 diabetes, stroke and coronary artery disease. During the 1960s nutrition experts hailed the Greek diet as one of the healthiest on the planet. Local Greeks however, are abandoning it in favor of American-style cuisine. And heart disease is on the rise in Greece.

If you'd rather eat ethnic than ethnoid, look for the dishes with the most vegetables and the least meat, the most olive oil and the least creamy sauces, the most herbs and spices and the least salt, the least deep-fried and the most sautéed. Enjoy!

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.