Growing up “as a brown kid in the West,” Jon Kung always felt like he was apologizing for the foods he ate.
But this really became an issue for him in 2019 when white restaurateurs opened a ”clean” Chinese food establishment in New York.
Owner and Manhattan nutritionist Arielle Haspel was facing a backlash for marketing the restaurant’s lo mein as a dish that wouldn’t make people feel “bloated or icky.”
To combat the notion that Chinese food is unhealthy, Kung turned to TikTok, where he and others are using the platform to try to dispel myths about cultural foods.
“Growing up in the West, we’re conditioned to assume that certain foods are healthier than others, and certain foods — especially ethnic foods — tend to be unhealthy,” Kung says in his video as he illustrates that a plain wrap contains as many calories as a serving of plain noodles.
As TikTok user @lensaskitchen put it in one video: “I never felt like I could eat the cultural foods I grew up on and also be healthy … I can’t log a lot of the foods I eat into fitness apps. For so long, we’ve been taught this very narrow and Eurocentric view of what eating healthy means all while being taught that cultural foods and soul foods are unhealthy even though they’re usually packed with nutrients.”
In another TikTok video, Kim Saira labeled James Corden’s “Spill Your Guts or Fill Your Guts” segment as ”racist” and started a petition calling on the TV host to remove this part of his show as it includes some Asian delicacies that are portrayed in a negative light.
Experts agree ethnic foods often get a bad rap and that it’s important to increase diversity among nutrition and wellness influencers.
Kung says many people who are seen as the experts in the nutrition world likely “have no exposure to other cultures.” So ethnic foods are left out of the conversation when those authorities dish out advice on healthy eating.
Registered dietitian Marisa Moore says that when it comes to improving the way people view culturally diverse foods, “It’s an ongoing learning process that takes time.”
Tamar Samuels, also a registered dietitian, says: “What is considered healthy is often associated with thinness, and thinness is often associated with whiteness. We need to redefine what healthy looks like to include different body shapes, colors and sizes.”
The word healthy isn’t as simple as just counting calories and fat content, Moore says. “There is no one-size-fits-all answer.”
Kung’s video has been viewed more than four million times. He says people from marginalized backgrounds have thanked him for bringing the issue to light.
“The only people that have been telling me that this is not an issue and that this doesn’t exist have been white guys,” he says.
Samuels says that, while foods that are staples in many cultures, like white rice, might not be healthy from a nutritional standpoint, it’s about finding a balance and “enjoying these foods without guilt because they are important to your family and your culture.”
Says Moore: ”I think about the collard greens and cornbread, peas and rice, okra and tomatoes, sweet potatoes and many other foods I love and that take me back to my grandmother’s kitchen. These foods are not only healthy and nourishing, but they are a key part of my heritage and bring me and my family immense joy.”
Kung says he realized he could still eat Chinese food while maintaining a stricter diet to meet his goals.
“I can eat foods of my own culture even though I am putting myself under a stricter diet,” Kung says. “There is no difference between a wrap, which is just gentrified Mexican food, and a bowl of noodles.
“These guises of ethnic food lead you to believe like, ‘Oh, it’s a bowl of ramen, it’s not good for you.’ Noodles can be good for you.”
Read more at usatoday.com