Traditional Dietary Habits

The central staple in the region is maize, which is generally ground and treated with lime and then pressed into flat cakes called tortillas. In Mexico and Guatemala, these are flat and thin, while in other Central American countries tortillas are thicker. In El Salvador, for example, small, thick cakes of maize, filled with meat, cheese, or beans, are called pupusas. Maize is also used in a variety of other preparations, including tacos, tamales, and a thin gruel called atole. The complementary staple in the region is beans (frijoles), most commonly black or pinto beans. Rice is also widely used, particularly diet: the total daily food intake, or the types of foods eaten processed food: food that has been cooked, milled, or otherwise manipulated to change its quality undernutrition: food intake too low to maintain adequate energy expenditure without weight loss macronutrient: nutrient needed in large quantities micronutrient: nutrient needed in very small quantities prevalence: describing the number of cases in a population at any one time obesity: the condition of being overweight, according to established norms based on sex, age, and height chronic: over a long period diabetes: inability to regulate level of sugar in the blood atole: a porridge made of corn meal and milk

A Tzotzil mother makes tortillas with her daughters. The Tzotzil live in Chiapas, Mexico, near Guatemala. Central Americans traditionally have simple diets that depend on corn, beans, and local fruits and vegetables. [© Corbis. Reproduced by permission.]

A Tzotzil mother makes tortillas with her daughters. The Tzotzil live in Chiapas, Mexico, near Guatemala. Central Americans traditionally have simple diets that depend on corn, beans, and local fruits and vegetables. [© Corbis. Reproduced by permission.]

in the southernmost countries, such as El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. Historically, major changes in the traditional diet occurred during colonial times, when the Spaniards and others introduced the region to wheat bread, dairy products, and sugar. Wheat is commonly consumed in the form of white rolls or sweet rolls, or, in the northern part of Mexico, as a flour-based tortilla. Noodles (fideos), served in soups or mixed with vegetables, have also become popular.

The consumption of meat and animal products, although popular, is often limited due to their cost. Beef, pork, chicken, fish, and eggs are all used. Traditional cheeses are prepared locally throughout the region as queso del pais, a mild, soft, white cheese, and milk is regularly used in café con leche and with cereal gruels.

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