UW News

October 23, 2023

Video: Familiar ingredients make Afghan Food Guide easy to swallow

UW News

When Priyasha Maharjan consulted a dietician in her hometown in Nepal, the post-pregnancy  diet she was prescribed included chia seeds and pumpkin seeds, unfamiliar ingredients she was unlikely to incorporate into her meals. A different doctor helped, making recommendations based on foods she already ate, and she knew this plan would be easier to follow because the foods were already part of her everyday diet. 

portrait of Priyasha Maharjan in a pink traditional dress.

Priyasha MaharjanUW News

People from other countries and cultures often have similar experiences when seeking healthcare in the United States, Maharjan said, because diet recommendations can include unfamiliar foods and preparations.  A digital handbook created by Maharjan and fellow UW School of Public Health graduate student Norma Garfias Avila hopes to begin solving this problem. 

“It was important for us to bring that insight that different cultures have different foods,” Maharjan said, “and to inform the providers about the food their patients are having so they can tailor recommendations to their patients.” 

The Afghan Food Guide is a nutritional resource created for the Afghan community and their health care providers in the U.S. It shows the nutritional values of foods, balanced meals and portion sizes while using dishes and cultural examples familiar to Afghan people. It’s intended to be used by clinicians when discussing food behavior and nutrition with patients who may not be familiar with American staples like sliced bread or oatmeal.

Photos and descriptions of two traditional dishes: shorwa, a soup of meat and vegetables, and bolani, a stuffed bread.

Traditional dish examples from the Afghan Food Guide.

“Our project steps in between the provider and the patient in trying to bridge that understanding of culture, build trust and help patients adhere to the food plan,” Maharjan said. 

To learn about Afghan food, Maharjan and Garfias Avila worked with six Afghan women in King County who invited them into their homes to observe and enjoy a traditional meal. The researchers made notes about common cooking ingredients and documented how meals were prepared and served.  

The resulting handbook, written with input from a dietician, nutritional information as well as specific dietary recommendations for pregnancy, diabetes and fasting. It’s culturally tailored to reflect foods and customs of people of Afghan-descent – including Hazara, Tajik, Pashtun and Uzbek communities – and is in two languages, English and Dari. The book is available for download online, and printed copies will be used at the UW Harborview Medical Center.  

Maharjan said feedback has been positive.  

“People who were familiar with the Afghan culture were so happy that health providers are becoming more inclusive, more accepting of the ways different people function,” she said. 

She hopes the Afghan Food Guide can act as a template for other culturally specific nutrition handbooks. 

“It serves a dual purpose,” Maharjan said. “On the provider side, it helps to inform them about the culture of their patients, and on the patient side it helps to educate them about the foods they are already consuming. They often just need minor modifications to make them healthier.”