The traditional Brazilian diet
Brazil is the largest country in South America and is made up of many different regions. Each region has it’s own food specialties and traditions. This reflects not only the size of the country but also the mix of native and immigrant populations, including European, African and Amerindian influences.
Although there is not a single national cuisine there are some similarities between the different regions. This includes the diet being high in rice, beans, root vegetables such as cassava and yams, and fresh fruit including acai, papaya and guava. Regional variations include the use of chili in the Bahia, fish and cassava in the Northern states and gaucho traditions with many meat based products and barbeques in the Southern states.
Some typical dishes that are eaten in many parts of the country include (Ref 1):
Feijoada is a hearty stew of black beans, sausages and cuts of pork. It is traditionally made over 24 hours allowing time for soaking beans and desalting pork and is typically eaten on Wednesdays and Saturdays. It is served with rice, kale, orange slices and farofa (toasted manioc flour).
Moqueca is a fish stew made with tomatoes, onions and coriander. It is a traditional dish from both Bahia in the North-East and Espirito Santa, and each has its own variation. One is made with palm oil, peppers and coconut milk, whilst the other is made with annatto seeds. Both are served with rice, farofa and pirao (spicy porridge of manioc flour).
Acaraje is a popular street snack. It is made with crushed black-eyed peas, palm oil and onions and then deep fried. Once cooked it is stuffed with dried shrimp, vatapa (a rich spicy puree of prawns, bread and cashew nuts) and chili sauce. This dish originates in the North-East of the country where the flavours have strong roots in African cooking.
Pao de Queijo
Pao de queijo is cheese bread. It is eaten either at breakfast or as a snack during the day. It is crispy on the outside but chewy on the inside. It is made with gluten-free tapioca flour, egg and cheese. Different sizes and fillings can also be found, including cream cheese or meat.
Coffee and Cachaca
The national beverage is coffee, which is consumed at breakfast as well as throughout the day. It is typically served in a short cup and black. The native liquor is cachaca. Cachaca dates back to the 1500s and is made from fermented sugarcane juice. It is found in Brazil’s national cocktail, caipirinha’s.
Fresh fruit juices are commonplace with local seasonal fruit. Of all the fruits from the Amazon acai is the best known because of its super-food status. It has traditionally been eaten by indigenous tribes for energy and used in cooking. However, since the 1980s it has been found in major cities in the form of fresh juices and sorbets.
How the Brazilian diet has changed?
Unfortunately many native foods and traditional dishes are becoming more and more unfamiliar to young Brazilians. The decline in consumption of these foods has coincided with an increase in the availability of processed convenience foods including pies, hamburgers, crisps, chips, fast food, cake, cookies, chocolate and fizzy drinks (Ref 2).
Ultra-processed food is believed to comprise 22 percent of the average Brazilian’s diet (Ref 3). A recent study in a Brazilian medical journal found that those who consumed the most ultra-processed food had the worse health outcomes compared to those who consumed the least. In addition, during the past decades Brazil has moved from an epidemic of malnutrition to one of obesity. The majority of Brazilians are now overweight and around one in seven are obese.
As well as processed foods being widely available in shops there is also door-to-door selling which allows those in slum and remote communities to get food without travelling. As a result processed products, in many areas, have become more accessible than fresh fruit and vegetables. Those in the poorest communities are under-educated and are therefore more vulnerable to advertising. Many companies market themselves as offering ‘nutrition, health and wellbeing to the remote communities’ but mainly sell yoghurt, ice cream and chocolate (Ref 4). As a result quality of food is now more of an issue than access to it, with obesity being the most serious problem.
To help to combat the obesity problem the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations produced some food-based dietary guidelines for Brazil in 2014 (Ref 5). The theme of the guidelines is to ‘eat food, mostly food that has been grown in Brazil for centuries, with other people’. It recommends that natural and minimally processed foods are the basis of the diet, added sugar, fats and salt and kept low and to avoid highly processed foods. There is also an emphasis on taking time to cook, eating with other people, shop in places that offer a variety of natural foods and to be wary of food marketing and advertising.
Problems associated with the introduction of western foods
The introduction of western processed foods into the Brazilian diet and the health problems associated with it is not new trend. Indeed it has been seen in many countries across the globe. When developing countries have access to processed foods and move away from their traditional diet they are at risk of new health problems.
One of the first recorded studies into the benefits of traditional diets was by a dentist called Dr. Weston Price (1870-1948) who studied the dental health of traditional societies around the world. He found that people who were isolated from modern civilizations had strong, straight teeth free of decay and that they were far healthier in general than people who ate the modern diets of the time (Ref 6). He looked at the diets of these healthy traditional cultures and found that they were all high in natural whole foods and were free from refined and processed foods.
Anthropological data also suggests that cultures living on native, unrefined foods prepared according to time-honored traditions also had lower rates of infertility, heart disease, diabetes and autoimmune disease (Ref 7). Indeed as cultures move away from their traditional diets and increase consumption of processed foods there is an increase in these conditions, as seen in Brazil with the rise of obesity and associated conditions including diabetes and heart disease.
What do all traditional diets have in common?
Traditional foods are the foods that have been consumed throughout history, prior to modernization and industrialization. They are therefore foods that are found in nature, have not been altered and are free from additives, chemicals. Traditional diets, like the native diet of Brazil, therefore all share a number of similarities. They are deeply nourishing, high in vitamins and minerals, and are considered to be the most beneficial for health (Ref 8).
Foods that are typically consumed and avoided in traditional diets include:
They all contain:
- Some form of animal protein and fat from either fish or other seafood, fowl, animals, eggs or milk products
- Some raw foods including either raw unpasteurized dairy, meat or fish, honey, fruit, vegetables and cold-pressed oils
- Naturally preserved and fermented foods including yoghurt, picked vegetables, beverages, meats and condiments
- The use of animal bones in the form of bone broths
- Seeds, grains and nuts are soaked, sprouted, fermented or naturally leavened to make them easier to digest
They do not contain any:
- Refined foods such as refined sugar, corn syrup or white flour
- Refined or hydrogenated vegetable oils
- Pasteurized, homogenized, skimmed or low-fat milk
- Tinned food, artificial additives, colouring or flavourings.
This emphasis of natural whole foods means that traditional diets are nutrient dense and support health. There is also time and attention put into cooking and preparing food to get the most out of the food and to make products easier to digest. Time honoured traditions and recipes are passed down through the generations and they hold a great deal of wisdom on the nourishing qualities of food and how they can be used to bring balance and health to the body.
What are the benefits of traditional diets?
As we can see a traditional diet is one that is high in nutrient dense foods and promotes health. It has lower levels of sugar, salt, hydrogenated fats and additives and therefore reduces the risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and other chronic health conditions. Diabetes for example was virtually unknown among the Maya of Central America until the 1950s. As they have switched to a western diet high in sugars the rate of diabetes has skyrocketed (Ref 9). Similarly Siberian nomads such as the Evenk reindeer herders and the Yakut ate diets heavy in meat, yet they had almost no heart disease until after the fall of the Soviet Union, when many settled in towns and began eating market foods. Today about half the Yakut living in villages are overweight and almost a third have hypertension (Ref 9).
Some of the specific benefits of eating traditional diets include the following. They are:
- Higher in omega-3 fatty acids and lower in omega-6 fatty acids, leading to a healthier balance of omega-fatty acids
- Higher enzyme content due to higher consumption of raw foods including raw dairy products
- More favourable for digestion. This is because they all contain some fermented foods, which are high in beneficial gut bacteria, soaked grains, seeds and nuts which are easier to digest than non-soaked, and bone broths which help to repair the gut lining.
- Higher in vitamins A, E, D and K due to the higher intake of natural animal fats including butter and raw dairy products.
- Lower levels of pesticides and chemicals, many of which have been linked to chronic health conditions.
This nutrient profile of a traditional diet helps to reduce the risk of heart disease, obesity, cancer and diabetes. It would therefore be beneficial for all of us to adopt many of the key principles of traditional diets to support our long-term health and wellbeing.
The traditional diet of Brazil varies from region to region. However, in all cases the traditional foods are natural, locally grown and cooked according to traditional recipes. Common foods include seasonal fruit and vegetables, rice and beans, meat and fish, as well as spices and bread and cheese. The diet has traditionally been low in processed and refined foods such as sugar, white flour, chocolate, chips and ready-meals. However in recent years there has been a growing prevalence of junk food in the diet and a decline in traditional eating. With this change the rates of obesity and diabetes have risen exponentially. Therefore if we want to enjoy the health benefits, as well as the flavours, of the Brazilian diet we want to focus on the traditional national dishes. Eating the traditional foods of Brazil will ensure the diet contains balanced macronutrients (protein, fat and carbohydrate) as well as micronutrients (vitamin and minerals). It is therefore nutrient-dense and deeply nourishing.