Nutrition Education in a Multicultural Society: Developing Cultural Competency

Demographics in the United States have shifted dramatically over the past century and will continue to do so. Certain groups are at heightened risk for health concerns related to diet, including obesity and diabetes. As a result, there is a need for effective nutrition education by those who understand the habits, norms, and preferences of various ethnic groups and can tailor intervention strategies accordingly.

What is the role of food in culture? It probably appears clear to you that for people of any cultural background, food is about much more than sustenance. Take a moment to consider the role food plays in your own life, such as at social gatherings, family meals, or celebrations. Culture significantly influences the foods we most commonly eat, the condiments and flavorings we use, and when and how frequently we eat. Given the variety in cultural norms related to diet here in the United States, it is critical to work on developing what is termed “cultural competency” in order to provide effective recommendations to diverse groups.

Cultural competency allows nutrition educators to work effectively within the cultural context of individuals from a diverse range of backgrounds. One must develop a number of competencies, including awareness of cultural differences, knowledge of dietary practices in different cultures, and effective cross-cultural communication skills. How might you attain this knowledge? You might start by reviewing the existing literature on various cultures to better understand their norms. An even better idea is to connect with people from diverse communities, such as community leaders or religious organizations within the community. Finally, talk with health professionals who already work regularly with these populations in order to expand your knowledge.

We also must understand that there is much variety within various cultural groups. Don’t assume that what you’ve learned about the group as a whole will automatically apply to any specific person with whom you work. When you are first getting to know a person, you should assess a variety of factors, such as socioeconomic status, education level, health goals, beliefs about the causation of any health issues, health literacy, and food preparation methods.

By developing cultural competencies, and assessing the cultural beliefs and food practices of individual clients, you will lay the foundation for providing culturally relevant and appropriate nutrition education.

More Resources
Nutrition Education in Action: Webinar with Dr. Elizabeth Cotter
This Webinar discusses additional culturally tailored nutrition education strategies.

About Elizabeth Cotter
Dr. Cotter is a professorial lecturer in the Department of Health Studies at American University. She is a licensed psychologist with clinical and research interests broadly related to the prevention of eating and weight-related concerns. She is particularly interested in the evaluation of culturally-tailored health promotion interventions, especially in underserved communities. Her current work focuses on community-based obesity prevention research in affordable housing communities. She is involved with the Vive Sana program, a community gardening and nutrition education program taking place in Arlington, VA and targeting low-income, food insecure households. Dr. Cotter earned her PhD in Counseling Psychology from the University of Wisconsin.

To learn more about American University’s online Master of Science in Nutrition Education, request more information or call us toll free at 855-725-7614.