Healthy Eating in the Caribbean: Building a Multi-Mix Meal – Healthline

The Caribbean is a diverse region whose ethnic groups have distinctive traditional food practices. These practices are often honored through religious and cultural festivities, as well as a strong sense of heritage.

I know this to be true in my home country of Trinidad and Tobago, where religious and ethnic holidays celebrate cultural foods and community.

However, the Caribbean region and its diaspora have high rates of diet-related illnesses like anemia, diabetes, and heart disease — and these rates are increasing (1, 2).

Research shows that when presented with culturally sensitive nutrition materials, Caribbean people make healthy food and beverage choices. This is key to combatting high rates of chronic diseases (3).

Thus, traditional foods may play an essential role in health, in addition to fostering connections to land, family, and customs.

This article shows you how to build balanced, nutritious Caribbean meals using the multi-mix principle.

Although governments across the Caribbean offer guidelines for nutritionally balanced meals, mainstream Western eating patterns like the Mediterranean diet or the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) MyPlate often dominate nutrition discourse (4).

This lack of local representation may inadvertently send the message that Caribbean foods are unhealthy.

Yet, there are many nutritionally diverse, healthy foods in this region. These foods are represented in the Caribbean Food and Nutrition Institute’s (CFNI) Six Food Groups guidelines and multi-mix principle, though these dietary standards haven’t been updated in 20 years (5).

The Caribbean six food groups are staples, legumes, animal foods, fruits, vegetables, and fats and oils (5).

The staples group — which includes rice, ground provisions (tubers), wheat, oats, corn, and starchy fruits — is always represented at each meal and forms the foundation of the Caribbean diet.

Animal foods include fish, red meat, and poultry, as well as eggs and dairy products.

According to the multi-mix principle, four of the six food groups — staples, animal foods, vegetables, and legumes — are fundamental to building practical, nutritionally balanced meals.

This principle pairs food groups strategically so that meals provide a complement of essential nutrients through two-, three-, or four-mix combinations.

You can use any of the following mixes to build balanced Caribbean meals.

Summary

The multi-mix principle uses four of the six Caribbean food groups to build nutritionally balanced meals with numerous essential nutrients through two-, three-, or four-mix combinations.

A two-mix is the simplest and least expensive meal combination, consisting of:

  • 1) a cereal grain, plus 2) legumes or animal foods
  • 1) ground provisions (tubers), plus 2) animal foods

When you pair a cereal grain like rice with legumes like beans, peas, or peanuts, they form a complete protein — a food that provides all nine essential amino acids in adequate amounts for good health (6, 7).

This means that you don’t need to eat meat to get quality protein.

Furthermore, legumes are a rich source of fiber and health-promoting compounds like antioxidants that may improve blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels (8, 9, 10).

Still, ground provisions (tubers), such as dasheen (taro root), cassava (yucca), sweet potato, yam, and eddoe (a tropical root vegetable), haven’t been shown to form a complete protein when paired with legumes, so it’s best to eat them with meat or fish.

Ground provisions are underrated sources of complex carbs — dietary fiber and starches — and essential nutrients that may lower blood sugar and cholesterol levels (11, 12, 13).

Examples of two-mixes

Summary

A two-mix is the simplest and most affordable combination, pairing grains like rice with legumes or meat to form a complete protein. Be sure to eat ground provisions (tubers) with meat or fish.

The three-mix meal builds on the principles of the two-mix by adding non-starchy vegetables. Three of the four foundational food groups are represented at any meal:

  • 1) a cereal grain, plus 2) legumes or animal foods, as well as 3) non-starchy vegetables
  • 1) ground provisions and 2) animal foods, plus 3) non-starchy vegetables
  • 1) a cereal grain or ground provisions, alongside 2) legumes and 3) animal foods

Non-starchy vegetables, which include asparagus, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, onions, tomatoes, zucchini, and more, provide small amounts of carbs per serving — about one-third the amount found in grains and cereals (4).

As an excellent source of fiber and nutrients like vitamin C, calcium, folate, and iron, they aid in managing blood sugar and cholesterol levels — and may even reduce the risk of some cancers (14, 15).

Examples of three-mixes

  • rice, dhal (split peas), and sautéed bhagi (spinach)
  • sada roti (flatbread), saltfish buljol (salted fish stir-fried with vegetables), and tomato choka (seasoned tomato, cooked and mashed)
  • stewed oxtail, pigeon peas, and rice

Summary

The three-mix adds non-starchy vegetables like spinach or tomatoes to the two-mix principle.

All four of the foundational food groups — staples, legumes, vegetables, and animal foods — are represented in a four-mix meal:

  • 1) cereal grains, 2) legumes, 3) animal foods, and 4) non-starchy vegetables
  • 1) ground provisions, 2) legumes, 3) animal foods, and 4) non-starchy vegetables

Examples of four-mixes

Four-mixes are common for Sunday lunches — traditional, large family-style meals on Sunday afternoons — and in one-pot dishes like pelau.

Pelau is a one-pot dish made with caramelized chicken, rice, pigeon peas, and non-starchy vegetables like carrots and sweet peppers. Coleslaw or fresh salads may be served as accompaniments.

A traditional Sunday lunch may include stewed beans, rice, macaroni pie, plantains, callaloo, oven-baked BBQ chicken, and fresh salad.

Callaloo is a dish of puréed taro leaves, pumpkin, and okra made with coconut milk, herbs like green onions, garlic, and onions, and optional meats like smoked turkey bones or crab.

Another example of a four-mix meal is cornmeal dumplings served with stewed lentils, steamed fish, and fresh salad.

Summary

All four foundational food groups — staples, legumes, animal foods, and vegetables — are represented in a four-mix meal, commonly seen in one-pot dishes like pelau or for traditional Sunday lunches.

The other Caribbean food groups — fruits, plus fats and oils — aren’t considered foundational groups in the multi-mix tool. Still, you’re encouraged to eat them throughout the day — at least two servings of fruit and three servings of fats per day (5).

Fats and oils

The fats and oils group consists of coconut oil, coconut milk, peanut butter, avocado, and all cooking oils.

Although these foods are high in calories, their fats play important roles in body temperature regulation and absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K (16).

Though the multi-mix concept doesn’t include these foods, fats and oils are usually represented at most meals because traditional Caribbean dishes are prepared using oils, butter, or margarine or are accompanied by high fat foods like avocado.

Also called “zaboca” in the Caribbean, avocado is rich in monounsaturated fats, which may lower LDL (bad) cholesterol and help reduce your risk of heart disease (17, 18).

Fruits

The fruits group includes fresh, frozen, dried, and canned Caribbean fruits.

Low fruit intake is associated with an increased risk of gut health issues like constipation, as well as chronic diseases like certain cancers (9, 19).

Local and seasonal fruits include five-finger (carambola), pommecythere, mango, silk fig (a variety of banana), oranges, Portugal fruit, and guava. These fruits are no less nutritious than imported varieties.

For instance, the West Indian cherry, also called acerola, packs 22 times more vitamin C per 1 cup (98 grams) of fruit than kiwi (20, 21).

Enjoy fruits as snacks between meals, raw, or in chows — a dish made from half-ripe fruit seasoned with black pepper, salt, and spicy peppers like pimento or habanero.

Summary

Neither fruits nor fats and oils are foundational food groups in the multi-mix concept but should still make up a portion of your daily food intake.

Diet-related chronic diseases are on the rise in the Caribbean and its diaspora, yet this region’s cultural foods are often poorly represented in mainstream nutrition education.

The multi-mix principle uses four of the six Caribbean food groups — staples, legumes, animal foods, and vegetables — to build practical, nutritionally balanced meals. You can use this concept as a meal planning tool.

The remaining food groups — fruits, plus fats and oils — aren’t considered foundational but should still be eaten throughout the day. Aim for at least two fruit servings and three fat servings each day.

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