PB - The differences and impact of diet in different cultures

Sometime in the last five years“Is that a hot dog, PB? Christ, it’s only a Monday… A bit strong isn’t it?” I turned around to my manager whilst taking another huge bite of my lunch, gherkins spilling onto the desk, a tomato tinged, satisfied grin creeping across my chomping face. “I still don’t get this idea of a salad for lunch John.” I confessed, turning the tasty chunks of hot dog and onion in my mouth. They melted together in a fusion of orgasmic flavour and the smug look on my face grew wider. I looked at the wilted leaves hanging off the end of John’s fork before pressing. “Where’s the meat, where’s the excitement, the value for money? You’re still going to be hungry after that salad and I’m going to approach the rest of the day with the energy of a man who’s eating right.” John rolled his eyes as he poked at some baby tomatoes and spinach. I pressed further, “I got this hot dog and fries for less than that salad and fancy orange juice you bought, and I look way more satisfied than you do, no offence.” John looked like he was waiting for me to finish but I sensed the rebuttal coming and pre-empted it. “Before you say its unhealthy, I know that. Of course it is, BUT, where’s the fun in being healthy all the time? I exercise, I eat salad sometimes, it just has to be accompanied with actual food and not cost me £10,” I ploughed on. “Plus, I don’t get this hysteria about eating healthily on a Monday anyway.” John looked at me with the same exasperated look he had whenever he thought I was pushing a farfetched idea to clients. “PB, when you get to my age, you’ll realise your health and time are the only things you wish you could buy more of.” I looked at him and stopped chewing, noticing the seriousness in his tone and facial expression. “You’re talented, but if you really want to do well in this industry and in life you need to have more stamina then everyone else.” He took another mouthful of veggie goodness, his conviction stopping my chewing in its tracks. “You won’t get there lifting hot dogs and burgers just because you can.” Suddenly my lunch seemed less interesting, the orgasm of flavour subsiding as quickly as the smile characterising my youthful ignorance.

TodayI grew up on a hood diet. That means my lunches were chicken and chip boxes I paid for by hustling donuts in the school playground. This was normally washed down with a carton of Sunpride Tropical juice that we’d somehow managed to make fit into our blazer pockets. I didn’t even know what an avocado looked or tasted like until I started working and even then, my first thought was, “Why is this shit so expensive? I can buy a wings meal and an extra strip burger for the price of spreading this on toast.” To this day I still measure the price of a meal by what it can buy me at Morleys or PFC. I dealt with a lot of sideways comments from people in the office when I rocked up on a casual Tuesday with a burger and fries for no reason other than it was what I felt like eating. The contrast between my diet and others in the office are a testament to the differences in environments we grew up in. Here’s a small explanation of what I mean.

For most people in the office, the formula for their lunch for a week is simple. Start on Monday with a healthy lunch to undo the damage they’ve normally done over the weekend due to exuberant eating and drinking. Typically, this can mean a salad from Pret, Birley’s or some other establishment that charge between £6-10 for a decent salad with a drink. This continues until Wednesday, by which time I would’ve had a burger or two and possibly Deliveroo’d some KFC if I’m feeling kinky. The health freaks on the floor won’t even have a pasta by midweek and its only on Thursday and Friday where they MIGHT join me in the promised land for some artery clogging goodness. This behaviour is in addition to the increasing number of people on the floor who are vegetarian, vegan or on some designer diet that means they can only eat proper food whenever there’s a full moon or because they need to schmooze a client for some business. I can’t lie, when I first started working on the trading floor, I didn’t get it. I had genuinely never known salad to be anything but a supplementary piece on the side of an actual meal. To justify it as a full meal was a foreign concept to me. In fact, meals without meat seemed weird to me in general. It’s only in the last few years that I’ve been open to different dietary patterns and realised how destructive this can actually be.

Now you may think, “Well of course your diet is unhealthy, PB. Wtf?” It’s a fair point and this leads me to something I grapple with. Why do the ends as a community tend to have unhealthier diets than those from more privileged backgrounds? Why do we cook with so much oil? Why is the food so heavy? Black people specifically – our diets surely contribute to our increased risk of health issues. The NHS says that we are three times more likely to get Type 2 Diabetes than people of white European origin in the UK. Is it time for black people to start rethinking the way we eat and drink? This is one of those arguments that for some people is going to come across as, “Ahh PB, so you work with the white man now and you think you know better!” That narrative serves you well and good until cholesterol has you in a headlock and you’re struggling to go past one round with your girl. Seriously though, I’m not against celebrating food as part of cultural heritage, I enjoy it as much as anyone else who likes their food seasoned with more than a pinch of salt and pepper. But I do think we should try and make efforts in adopting healthier diets.

A wise man once said: “Black people go to the funerals of their relatives and celebrate their life by eating the same food that killed them.” What I noticed about white people at work was that they generally had a more selective palette than I did. So a salmon avocado on toast with some chili flakes was pretty expensive, but not something they’d blink twice about paying for because it’s quality food. Heaven forbid they be introduced to the £3 – £5 meals with special sauce at Peckham’s PFC chicken shop, they’d shun it regardless of how cheap it is. Again, this points to the differences in our upbringings. A lot of the people at work likely had a far better quality of food to pick and dine from whilst growing up. The differences between the quality at Ocado and Netto’s supermarket in developing tastes have an impact on the quality of food you are ready to accept, and so my colleagues are naturally happy to continue paying for that standard regardless of price. The other big difference is how we approach junk and fast food. When I was a young kid, KFC and McDonalds were birthday treats. It wasn’t a regular occurrence for me to get a bargain bucket and this was mostly due to the, “We have rice at home,” approach that a lot of black households adopt. The thing is, I liked that shit. It was tasty as fuck, as were the chicken boxes I used to get for lunch in secondary school and then the kebabs in uni after that. I said to myself that when I finally made money, I would buy it every day if I could, because the limitation for me was money, and once I start working and get the money, I could have whatever I wanted, right? I’ve had to do a lot of work to undo that mentality because not only is it destructive, it encourages the dangerous belief that unhealthy habits are fine to have as long as you can afford them. The dichotomy in what food appealed to myself and my colleagues and what we were willing to pay for this food continues to be fascinating.

Now for the disclaimer. I still easily have the worst diet amongst the people on my team, maybe even the floor. My discipline in terms of snacking and eating healthily for lunch are woeful. That’s not to say things aren’t improving. I’ve recently taken to packing my own lunches for the day (this is also after concluding I’m not going back to paying £10 a day for lunch after lockdown), and I’ve cut down a lot on junk food. But some old habits die hard and there are reasons for that. Firstly, its mainly due to the spaces I still occupy. If you chill in ends or with people from that community, the default food to eat is generally unhealthy, even the home cooked meals. That’s not to say I blame my Mum for instance, her generation came and cooked what they could afford and what they knew. But then I think of the food establishments in the ends ranging from a chicken or kebab shop to Subway – the choice of establishments that offer relatively healthy takeaway food are slim. It won’t be until the ends change their eating habits and demand better and healthier food that the supply of healthy and affordable food can be realised. Secondly, there’s a theme which runs through a lot of my articles of dealing with the ‘selling out’ stigma, and unfortunately it applies here too. Food is very personal to people especially minorities, it’s an expression of their identity in many ways and a piece of culture that the majority of people hold on to when they move to the UK. To suggest changing or moving on from that can be blasphemy in many circles, regardless of the intention behind it. This is something that will have to be addressed by my generation; there is nothing wrong with relevant change for the betterment of our community.

This is still an ongoing journey for me. I have at least two decades worth of eating habits to break and that won’t happen overnight. As I grow and become responsible for more people, concern for my long-term wellbeing and quality of life will begin to have a more profound impact on my eating choices. I can only hope the same change happens in my community and we can start to shed the pattern of detrimental dietary lifestyles.

The Poor Banker