Dietary Guidelines: What to Eat in Cuba?

Isbel Diaz Torres

Dietary Guidelines

The Cuban public, government institutions and the national food industry now have an educational document called “Dietary Guidelines.”

I obtained this information in a workshop on environmental and patrimonial education held at the Cuban Institute of Anthropology, where the seminar focused on the issue of food. A professor from the Institute of Nutrition and Food Hygiene presented the “Dietary Guidelines for the Cuban Public.”

While these are educational tools that deal with scientific knowledge related to nutritional requirements and food composition, they are explained as practical messages to help people with the selection and consumption of healthy foods.

At the individual level and in the medium term, the guidelines seek to increase knowledge about healthy eating, with the hope of correcting inappropriate eating behavior. They attempt to promote “healthy and culturally acceptable diets” and “correct undesirable habits and reinforce desirable ones.”

I have to confess that I’m not completely clear as to how one can determine what a “culturally acceptable” diet really is. I don’t know if it was just the wording of the expression, but to me it seems a little invasive and discriminatory to claim that there’s one culture that is more acceptable than another.

In any case, I understood that this wasn’t the focus of the workshop.  Its aim was to warn of practices that could compromise the health of consumers. After all, everyone eats what they want… or what they can.

On this point, I found it very astute to attempt to “guide dietary choices while taking into consideration the availability of incomes.”  That’s precisely the magic that many Cubans pull off when faced with local farmers markets or when cooking at home.

At the institutional level, the “Dietary Guidelines” are intended to serve in the planning and evaluation of social programs as well as to guide and standardize the content of advertisements and educational publications, something that doesn’t seem to work very often.

When we then looked at the industrial level, those messages from this sector aim to give guidance about the production of high quality food, encouraging labeling and promoting healthy food preparation in all production and sales sites.

Vegetable salad.

I do not know why, but it seems that no one working in the state cafeteria across the street from my P-5 bus stop has ever in their life seen this blessed guide. But hey, we mustn’t disparage the efforts of scientists who are trying to do a good job. The problem of course is not the guide.

Here are some of the quite interesting contents of the “Dietary Guidelines for the Cuban Population over Two Years of Age” that the researcher presented to us.

Among the “priority” health problems related to nutrition, the document highlights: “Cardiovascular disease, cancer, hypertension, diabetes mellitus, iron deficiency anemia, osteoporosis, and obesity.”  It was disturbing to learn that high blood pressure among children is increasingly common.

According to the guide, the food that’s available in society will allow us to satisfy 100% of our real needs from the meat and legumes food group, while we cannot expect to cover even 50% of our needs for fruits, dairy products and fats. Meanwhile, our consumption in relation to the daily recommended quantity of sugar went off the chart at 200%. Thus food availability is very poor, with marked insufficiencies of those that contribute energy, protein and fat.

I know that some people will have a lot of doubts about the need for meat being met 100 percent in Cuba, but you have to note that this involves the “food available in society as a whole.” I don’t doubt that my portion of pork chop exists here; the only problem is that someone else is eating it.

The researcher explained that a representative sample of the Cuban population took the first “National Survey of Consumer Tastes and Preferences,” which concluded that there was little consumption of fruits, vegetables, fish, dairy and meat, as opposed to a high intake of sugar and salt.

Indeed there was a low preference for fish, fruits and vegetables in the diets of the islanders, while they expressed a preference for fats, red meats, cured meats, salt and sugar.

From these facts, nine “messages” were proposed:

1. A varied diet during the day is pleasant and necessary for one’s health.

2. Fill yourself with life, eat vegetables every day.

3. Eat fresh fruit and increase your vitality.

4. Prefer vegetable oils. Lard is worse for your health.

5. Fish and chicken are healthier meats.

6. Cut back on sugar.

7. Reduce salt intake. Start by not adding it to the food on the table.

8. A good day starts with breakfast. Eat some food in the morning.

9. Find a healthy weight for your height. Stay in shape.

To me these seem a bit naïve — really — especially if we know the prices of fruits and meats in the agricultural market.  And not to mention the fish, whose prices — when you can find these — are through the roof.  As for a bottle of vegetable oil, this costs 2.40 CUC in hard currency stores, keeping in mind that the average salary in Cuba is under 15.00 CUC a month.

In my opinion, the only feasible food to buy while following the “Guidelines” are vegetables, whose prices are usually affordable at the intensive urban organic farms here.

Of course not everyone has one of those “organoponico” gardens close by, and these don’t always raise all that’s needed.  But still it’s possible to grow vegetables at home, something unthinkable to many but essential if we want to vary our diets and eat healthily.

The workshop was a “fruitful” exchange, and I learned some details about the origins of our tastes and cooking practices. I also had answered an uncertainty I’d never been quite sure about: To me the excessive taste we Cubans have for sugar was associated with the overdoses of sugar-water (known here as “rooster soup”) that we receive in high school and military service… it appears I was wrong.