Food culture challenges Acadiana nutritionists to promote healthy balance

Photo: Hannah Simmons
Nadya Hartsook from Jakarta, Indonesia, left, Ramie Billings from Mire, Louisiana

Louis Prejean
@LouisPrejean

Acadiana-based nutritionists and dieticians said they find it to be a challenge to merge the staples of Louisiana’s food culture and healthier alternatives in order to raise the state’s health ranking among the country. 

Popular Louisiana dishes, such as crawfish étouffée and gumbo, contain high amounts of carbohydrates when paired with rice. The meatier dishes are often presented on restaurant menus with a fried option, whether it be fried alligator, fried frog legs or another fried option. 

Considering the staples of the state’s food scene and the 2018 obesity rankings, it’s hard to ignore the challenges of shifting the culture towards a healthier path for local nutritionist Yvette P. Quantz, RD, LDN, CSSD, CLT. 

“It can be a challenge. Every culture has its challenges,” Quantz said. “Anywhere you can go in the country, there’s going to be challenges. But there’s always opportunity to change it and explore other ways of cooking.”

Quantz also works as the operations manager and marketing dietician at Eat Fit Acadiana. 

Eat Fit Acadiana is partnered with the Ochsner Eat Fit to “combine the community’s passion for good food with their zest for life and enjoying time with family and friends,” according to ochsner.org. 

Quantz said it is important to educate people on the options that exist in Acadiana.

“There are things that are happening with Eat Fit Acadiana,” Quantz said. “We go in and work with local restaurants to bring healthy menu items to the community. The more we do things like that the more we empower our community to make better choices and educating them how to do that.”

For registered dietician Lauren DeRouren, MS, LDN, RD at University Hospital and Clinics, it’s also about recognizing that people come from lower income homes and they may not have access to these healthier options. 

“It’s challenging because we have a more low-income, low education population,” DeRouren said. “We struggle with our culture, but we also struggle with access to food.”

DeRouren said shopping in season for vegetables is a good resource to get cheaper, healthier food while adding vegetables to the plate. 

“If you’re shopping in season, those food products should be on sale,” DeRouren said. “We always emphasize the MyPlate method. People down here don’t eat a lot of vegetables or fresh vegetables cooked in a healthier way.”

The MyPlate method is a government visual chart that suggests appropriate proportions. It has received better feedback than verbal content, according to DeRouren. 

Quantz also offered advice on how to cut down the obesity rankings in Louisiana. She said it will be a shift in the state’s culture over time. 

“It’ll be a cultural shift that’ll happen over time,” Quantz said. “We’ll start passing down versions of recipes that are higher plant-based foods and using more of the complex carbs. Teaching how to make a gumbo with less oil or leaner cuts of meat. I think the cultural issues are the portions.”

While acknowledging the health rankings, Quantz said she does not believe that is the only motivator for people to develop healthier eating habits. 

“When we think about numbers and health stats, there are things that don’t motivate people enough to make changes,” Quantz said. “But when people think about their family, in Louisiana we love our people. We love having the health to be around and take care of those we love. I find that’s a stronger motivator than getting to some number because of a health chart.”

Quantz and DeRouren said they believe there is a middle ground for keeping the food that has made up Louisiana’s culture while presenting it in a healthier way.

Blue Dog Cafe is one restaurant that incorporates this marriage between health and Louisiana food. 

Coy Molley is the current kitchen manager at Blue Dog Cafe with nearly six years experience at the establishment. 

“We have an Eat Fit menu,” Molley said. “We offer a lot of healthier options and we try to modify anything Cajun to make it a little more health conscious. We try to make things as healthy as possible while still staying true to Cajun flavor.”

But when it comes to arriving to the middle ground, Molley said it can be difficult because of the traditions tied into Louisiana cooking. 

“I think it’s kind of hard to find that middle ground because a lot of the old cooking and the old ways are heavy,” Molley said. “You’re always going to have people that want the unhealthier option but they’ll try to balance that with the healthiest thing they can do.”

There are options for people looking to find the healthier side to Louisiana food culture. It can be found in Eat Fit Acadiana and restaurants that incorporate their menu. It can be found at UHC. According to DeRouren, UHC will be opening a series of dietician-lead nutritional classes in November called Healthy For Life. 

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