I recently met with a client who had just moved to the United States from the Dominican Republic. She complained of stomach issues, which we realized came down to the high-fat content of her breakfast, mangu.

This is a popular dish in the Dominican Republic that consists of smashed green plantains (think mashed potatoes) and is often served with a side of fried salami. And fried cheese. And a fried egg.

Concerned that she would have to give up on a recipe that reminded her of home, she and I worked together to figure out how she could still eat the dish, but looked at ways to reduce the amount of fat. By the end of the session, we had figured out a way to make the dish healthier, while maintaining its original flavor and texture.

This scenario is not a unique one.

As a dietitian who works in a city as diverse as Philadelphia, I’m able to meet and work with clients from all over the world. But with this amazing opportunity comes a responsibility to ensure that I can teach these clients how to cook nutritious foods from their own cultures — even when society is vilifying many of their traditional recipes.

It’s heartbreaking to hear these clients tell me that their medical provider asked them not to eat certain foods or whole recipes that are a staple in their culture.

This vilification is often down to certain ingredients used in these dishes and recipes, which are frequently deemed as “unhealthy” or “dirty” by American standards.

And one of the most commonly misunderstood ingredient is fat — the one addition that can make or break flavor and texture.

Yet instead of completely foregoing this ingredient altogether, it’s about learning how to substitute different types of fat to ensure you’re looking after your heart and maintaining the essence of the dish itself. Read on to find out more.

When you remove a person’s food culture, you remove part of their identity

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Cuisine can be defined as “the foods and methods of preparation traditional to a region or population.” Every culture has a specific cuisine, dishes, and meals that represent who they are and how they eat — and often these recipes are passed down from generation to generation.

But often these non-American dishes and cuisines are labeled as “unhealthy.” And this mindset can be incredibly detrimental.

When you take away a person’s food culture, you take away that person’s identity. This is extremely problematic and can lead to many people feeling ostracized.

Rather than completely rule out foods as unhealthy because of the fats used to prepare them, the trick is learning how to preserve these recipes while ensuring you’re looking after your heart.

As a Spanish-speaking registered dietitian (RD), who works with a number of Spanish-speaking clients, this is one of my biggest pet peeves.

It’s heartbreaking to hear these clients tell me that their medical provider asked them not to eat certain foods or whole recipes that are a staple in their culture. Many of these clients, in turn, feel lost and often times stop seeing their medical provider or just stop listening to them because they don’t feel understood.

As a healthcare provider, listening to your patient and learning about their culture — including the foods that they eat — is key in helping them make better choices.

The key is finding a balance that’s both nutritious and maintains original flavor and texture

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When it comes to incorporating healthy choices into someone’s food culture, it’s important that you strike a balance between finding what’s healthy and what actually preserves the recipes original essence.

Suggesting, for example, that someone simply “substitute white rice for brown rice,” is not an equivalent swap. Using brown rice, especially in many recipes that come from the Caribbean Islands and Asian cultures where rice is a staple, might not provide the same texture and flavor.

When it comes to cooking in any cuisine, fat, perhaps more than anything else, makes things delicious. Lard, for example, which is white pork fat that’s been rendered and clarified, is often used for deep frying and making flaky pastry. It can be problematic, however, if overused in our diet.

So when it comes to substitutions, it’s important that these are done properly.

Rather than completely rule out foods as unhealthy because of the fats used to prepare them, the trick is learning how to preserve these recipes while ensuring you’re looking after your heart.

How to cook with fat and still keep things healthy

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Eating healthy doesn’t mean we have to sacrifice flavor or texture.

When it comes to fat, it’s possible to maintain those two elements of a recipe by either adjusting the cooking method or switching the type of fat you use.

Here are some of the essential elements of traditional cooking and how to replace them with more heart-healthy alternatives:

1. Deep frying

This is a method of cooking with fats that have a high smoke point. Lard and butter have a high smoke point, and make food beautifully crispy, but they’re also high in saturated fat.

An alternative is to use canola oil — which is lower in saturated fat, but achieves a similar level of crispy cooking when you use it to pan-fry food.

Dishes to try this with include:

  • pan-fried breaded chicken
  • pan-fried pork chops
  • pan-fried latkes

2. Butter

I personally love butter and a lot of French cooking calls for large quantities of it. But if you’re looking to cook with less butter you can always substitute it for olive oil.

Dishes where you can do this but still achieve the same consistency and flavor are:

3. Heavy cream

Heavy cream is used in many dishes to create a thicker consistency and a decadent taste. A simple swap for this is milk and cornstarch. You can still achieve the same consistency without all the saturated fat.

Making this swap would work for:

  • alfredo sauce
  • creamy tomato or chicken soups
  • cheese sauces

4. Sour cream

Mexican cuisine uses “crema” or sour cream regularly in dishes. Swapping it out for Greek yogurt, however, works and maintains similar consistency while providing extra nutrition and flavor.

This can work with:

  • tacos
  • dipping sauce for perogies
  • artichoke dip

The bottom line

Remembering to honor the foods of your culture is important. Culinary traditions are part of who we are.

It’s also essential to remember that fats aren’t the enemy — it’s the types we use, how often we use them, the quantity we consume, and how we use them in cooking that’s key.

And if a number of the dishes in your cultural cuisine require the use of large amounts of saturated fat from animal-based products, swapping them out in certain cases is a viable option.


Dalina Soto, MA, RD, LDN, is founder and bilingual registered dietitian atNutritiously Yours, based in Philadelphia. Dalina received her bachelor’s in nutritional sciences from Penn State University and completed her master’s and dietetic internship at Immaculata University. Throughout her career, Dalina has worked in the community of Philadelphia helping clients ditch diets and eat healthy. Follow her onInstagram.