How Does Your Culture Influence Your Health Decisions?

Back when I first moved from the US to Japan, I lost 40 pounds. And the reason wasn't because I didn't know a lot about health before I moved to Japan - it was because being in Japan taught me a different interpretation of the information I thought I knew a lot about.

I was so inspired to share a new perspective with English speakers that I became a corporate wellness facilitator and wrote a book, Confessions of a Yo-yo Dieter, which was released exactly 1 year ago todayIn honor of my 1 year anniversary, I want to share with you some thoughts on East/West nutritional interpretation:

Health information is universal - but interpretation and execution differ by culture.

I have always been intrigued by how cultures interpret the same health information in different ways.

For example, if you tell an American to "stay hydrated", the action he takes might be to drink 2L of water per day. But if you tell a Japanese person to "stay hydrated", she might opt for rice (cooked in water) instead of bread (water is baked out), add soup to her meal, and avoid caffeine (dehydrating). This is an example of two different methods of execution based on the same piece of advice.

In general, Westerners tend to focus on nutritional density. That means that their primary concern is to select foods and preparation methods that maximize the amount of nutrients they're putting into their body.

You'll find most Westerners concerned about nutrition-specific things like macros, ketos, gluten-free, carb-free, sugar-free, dairy-free, etc. They tend to care more about the science of what is in their food and less about how they feel and whether or not the foods their eating is seasonal or imported.

Easterners on the other hand have a strong focus on body mechanism. That means that their primary concern is to eat in a way that stimulates your body (your organs, circulation etc.) to function optimally and balance your health. The consensus is that your body knows what it's doing, all you have to do is support it. 

You'll find most Easterners focusing on eating warming foods ("warming" = items that are cooked or prepared with things like ginger, herbs, spices) that stimulate your digestion and circulation. They tend to think more about harmony with nature through seasonal produce as well as how they feel about their inner harmony. 

It's amazing how these conceptual and cultural values impact the food choices people make. In practice, a westerner might choose a big, raw salad to get in a variety of nutrients, where as an Easterner would find that the "wrong" choice as it's too cooling to the body. Instead, an Easterner would opt for a variety of grains, soup, and cooked seasonal vegetables.

When you have different cultures of people within your organization, you have different interpretations of health values and needs.

Some of your international employees might be frustrated that they can't seem to find kale in Japanese supermarkets or source fresh fruits and nuts without the costs wiping out their entire paycheck - these are all items that they consider to be crucial for them to be healthy based on the media they consume from their home country. Additionally, they might be picky eaters or have dietary restrictions like being vegetarian, gluten-free, keto, or whatever new health trend is on the market.

But sometimes, reframing the information they have by opening their eyes up to a different perspective on health can reduce worry they might have around food and help them understand the benefits that Japan has to offer. Reframing can help them become curious about wellness concepts in Japan and learn how to take advantage of local products (that won't go over their budget).

While discussing health is always a great way to learn theories, highlighting cultural values and why people make the choices they do is equally as intriguing.

What do your employees value when they hear the word "health"?