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Adapting Global Dietary Guidelines to Local Cultures: Insights from the Santal Tribe

Author: Sarah Ames

Editor: Nitya Rao

Acknowledgements: University of East Anglia & Mobile Teaching Kitchen Team

Our recently published paper in the journal Nutrients delves into the dietary practices of the Santal tribe and their alignment with global dietary guidelines. You can read the complete study here. The research highlights how the traditional diet of this indigenous community provides valuable lessons in crafting sustainable and healthy eating habits tailored to local cultures and environments.


In the past century, global food systems have experienced significant transformations that have affected food supplies, diets, and health outcomes. These have resulted in sub-optimal diets,  a top risk factor for the global burden of disease, with notable disparities influenced by factors such as ethnicity, age, education, and urbanisation. These dietary changes have also increased pressure on natural resources, land, biodiversity, and ecosystems. Many populations, hindered by factors such as poverty, face barriers to accessing nutritious diets, highlighting the need for sustainable dietary practices.


The Environmental Impact of Dietary Choices

Dietary choices significantly impact the environment. By 2050, diets high in refined sugars, fats, oils, and meats could drastically increase greenhouse gas emissions and land clearance. Conversely, plant-based diets, emphasising fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, can mitigate climate change by substantially reducing emissions. Achieving this shift requires culturally sensitive, region-specific strategies.


Indigenous Food Systems and Sustainability

Indigenous food systems offer sustainable, locally rooted food production and consumption approaches. These systems, rich in diverse and seasonal foods, improve health and food security. In India, the Santal tribe, the largest indigenous community, maintains traditional dietary practices despite pressures from modernisation. Their diet includes wild plant foliage, fungi, vegetables, fruits, and locally raised livestock. The Santal tribe also practices small-scale agriculture and kitchen gardening. Research shows indigenous foods significantly improve nutrient intake and contain health-benefiting bioactive components.


Comparison with EAT-Lancet Commission's Guidelines

The EAT-Lancet Commission's 2019 guidelines promote a "Planetary Health Diet" focusing on plant-based foods and sustainability. Aligning these global dietary recommendations with diverse cultural practices is challenging but essential for promoting health and sustainability. This study evaluates how traditional Santal diets align with the EAT-Lancet guidelines, aiming to understand how indigenous diets can support global health and sustainability goals while respecting cultural diversity.


Menu Template Selection

For comparison with the EAT-Lancet guidelines, we selected two of the nine Santal menu templates: Kanhu Thali and Jhano Thali. "Thali" refers to a plate representing three meals consumed daily. These templates were chosen to reflect the diverse dietary practices of the Santal community and account for seasonal variations, covering both winter and late summer to monsoon seasons. This comparison identified areas of alignment and divergence between the traditional Santal diet and global dietary recommendations.


Kanhu Thali (Winter Season: November to February)

  • Morning: Crushed sweet corn boiled with horsegram (Jonra Dakaa and Kurthi Daal)

  • Day: Rice, flat beans, wild leafy vegetables, and dried fish (Malhan Daal Ohoy Ara and Sukhi Machli)

  • Evening: Wheat flour chapatis, black-eyed beans, and drumstick leaves (Lupung Ara Peetha, Ghanghra Daal with Lal Ara, and Munga Ara)


Jhano Thali (Late Summer to Monsoon)

  • Morning: Rice, sweet potato leaves, and black-eyed beans (Sakarkand/Alu Ara and Ghanghra Daal)

  • Day: Mahua flower (Madhucaa longifolia) with sesame seeds (Matkom Tilmin Lathe) 

  • Evening: Rice, wild mushroom curry, chicken egg curry, and mango pickle (Mocha Oo Uttu, Sim Bili Uttu, and Ool Ka Achar)

Key Findings

The Santal diet aligns well with several aspects of the EAT-Lancet recommendations:

  • Emphasis on Whole Grains: Whole grains, including rice, wheat, and corn, are central to the Santal diet, with an average intake of 475.1 g per day. They provide essential nutrients and dietary fibre, promoting digestive health. This substantial intake supports daily energy needs, which is crucial for the Santal community's active lifestyle involving substantial physical labour.

  • Incorporation of Vegetables: The average intake of vegetables in the Santal diet is 453.6 g per day, which exceeds the EAT-Lancet and Indian RDA recommendations. Both starchy and leafy vegetables are a staple, ensuring a good intake of vitamins and minerals.

  • Plant-Based Protein Sources: Legumes and pulses are key protein sources in the Santal diet, providing an average of 98.2 g daily and aligning with sustainable recommendations. Despite high rice consumption potentially affecting protein quality, legumes, pulses, and local sources like fish and snails contribute higher-quality protein to their diet.

  • Unsaturated Fats: The diet focuses on healthy fats, mainly from plant-based sources.

  • Limited Added Sugars: The Santal diet naturally limits the intake of added sugars, adhering to healthy dietary guidelines.

  • Locally Sourced Ingredients: The reliance on locally available and seasonal ingredients supports sustainability and dietary diversity.


However, there are some notable deviations between the two dietary patterns:


  • Meat and dairy products: The Santal diet does not include animal-based proteins such as lamb, beef, pork, and poultry, nor does it contain dairy products. This reflects cultural practices and the availability of these foods. Instead, the community relies on indigenous fish and snails for protein. This highlights the need for culturally sensitive dietary guidelines that consider availability and cultural preferences.

  • Fruit intake: Fruit intake is slightly below the recommended amount. The consumption of locally available, seasonal fruits varies, often influenced by geographical proximity to forests.

  • Micronutrient Intake: While the Santal diet aligns with recommended levels for many essential nutrients, there are deficiencies in iodine, vitamin D, and vitamin K1. Addressing these deficiencies requires educating the community about locally available sources rich in these nutrients and considering supplementation or fortification.


Cultural Sensitivity in Dietary Recommendations

Recent shifts in the Santal diet towards energy-rich foods have led to the underutilisation of traditional, nutrient-dense foods. Economic changes, generational transitions, and shifts in agricultural practices influence these dietary patterns. Preserving traditional ecological knowledge and promoting the use of indigenous foods are crucial for maintaining nutritional quality and sustainability.



Our study underscores the importance of tailoring dietary guidelines to accommodate cultural diversity, local practices, and seasonal variations. Recognising and respecting traditional diets is critical to fostering sustainable and healthy eating habits. Global dietary recommendations should be crafted to allow for cultural sensitivity and regional adaptability, ensuring they meet the nutritional needs of diverse populations while respecting their unique cultural contexts.

Be part of the change

This year, the NNEdPro Global Institute for Food, Nutrition and Health and the International Academy of Nutrition Educators, in partnership with BMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Health, are excited to announce the forthcoming "Democratising and Decolonising Food and Nutrition: From Science to Society" Summit. This Summit is dedicated to fostering a more inclusive, equitable, and collaborative approach to food and nutrition research, education, practice, and policy worldwide. Learn more about the event and register here

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