Comparing Food Culture of Costa Rica and the United States- Lyndsey Bradley RA

Mountains on the way to Monteverde.

During my first semester of my senior year in college, I studied and lived in Costa Rica for four months. In this time, I experienced many cultural differences between life in the United States and Costa Rica, but there was one aspect that really intrigued me the most; Food. I found it fascinating how people in Costa Rica and people in the United States both required the same components of nutrition, but both eat completely different diets. Here, I will be discussing the cultural differences in both diet and cuisine in the United States as well as Costa Rica.

Beautiful Costa Rican beaches.

Considering the fact that food is an important aspect of culture in all societies, it would probably be best to start with the definition of culture. According to Bryant, DeWalt, Courtney and Schwartz (2003),  “the potential we have to share patterned ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving that arise from social interaction with other people.” It is clear to say that based on that definition, culture can look very different from one society to another. This includes food, food preparation, manners, and traditions. Each society has a different history, which is why culture has evolved into something unique from all other places around the world.

Culture is something that is fluid and always evolving. There are many components and layers to it. An example that proves this is how two different cultures could eat almost identical foods on a daily basis whereas their religions could be nothing alike. Both of these groups of people have similarities but are two different cultures since they have two different ways of thinking.

When discussing cultural aspects of food, it is common for people to misuse the word ‘diet,’ by saying something along the lines of, “I am going on a diet,” and meaning that they are trying to lose weight. However this is not entirely true. According to  Bryant, DeWalt, Courtney, and Schwartz(2003) the definition of diet is “the actual foods that individuals or groups consume to meet their nutrient needs.”

Although it is true that when someone is trying to lose weight they are on a diet, but everyone must be on a diet in order to live. What that person means to say is that they are changing their diet in hopes of losing weight. Diet is simply the foods that are eaten to keep our bodies functioning.

The term ‘diet’ is one that is more on the scientific side, whereas the term ‘cuisine’ is used when referring to the cultural side of things. According to Bryant, DeWalt, Courtney, & Schwartz (2003) the definition of cuisine is, “foods, food preparation techniques, and taste preferences that are shared but the member of a group of people.” This means this cuisine has more “personality” to the food, whereas diet is more of what one is eating at its purest form. So although the two terms ‘diet’ and ‘cuisine’ are very similar, they cannot be used interchangeably.

When discussing the differences in foods in the United States and foods in Costa Rica, it is important to remember that the common diets of people living in these countries are made up of different cuisines. Both in which have different anthropological, sociological, historical and geographical reasons to them, to which I will be discussing in this paper.

Finally, diet is part of what defines us as people. According to Kaplan(2012), “A diet expresses ethnic, religious and class identification; it prescribed gender roles; it is embodied in rituals and manners; and it relates directly to our aspiration to perfect ourselves.” With that being said, food is more than just food, It defines a large part of who people are within their societies. Each of these components must be taken into consideration when pondering the diets of both Americans and Costa Ricans.

It can be common for people to be so involved with their own culture that they are unaware of the fact that their behaviors are in fact a part of their culture, and not a universal behavior. An example of this is America’s love for pizza. Pizza is always a safe choice to offer at any kind of party because a majority of the people at the party will enjoy pizza, however in many other countries around the world, pizza would not be so typical, or even standard, to have at a party. According to Mantanari (2006) “The organ of taste in not the tongue, but the brain, a culturally (and therefore historically) determinant organ through which are transmitted and learned the criteria for evaluations.” This quote just further supports the fact that people’s prefered foods and flavors have come to be based on the people and the habits that you have been surrounded with, instead of a innate, predetermined set of prefered flavors that we are born with.

A personal example that I experienced of not being aware of something that was a part of my own culture, was when I went to the movie theater in Costa Rica. While waiting in line at the concession stand, I was caught off guard when I saw the nachos. Every time that I have gone to the movie theater in the United States, I had seen nachos with a cheese sauce. However when I was in Costa Rica at the movie theater I saw that nachos had bean dip in place of the usual cheese sauce. I remember finding it amusing that Costa Ricans eat beans with everything, and the fact that it never crossed my mind that there is no “standard” way to eat nachos at a movie theater.

In present days Costa Rica, a main component of their diet is rice and beans. Just the same as other aspects of culture, there is a historical reason behind why this is a staple in their diet. According to Presten-Werner(2009) unlike beans, rice was not a crop that was natively grown in the Americas. This means that it would not have become an important part of the diet until after Christopher Columbus would arrive arrive, and the Spanish conquest began. Research shows that although cultivation of the grain began as early as 1789, it would not be until the 1800s when African slaves arrived that rice would become part of the typical Costa Rican diet.

Considering the fact that I lived in Costa Rica for an extended period of time, I was exposed to the common foods that people ate. What I observed was that there was hardly any variation in the diets of Costa Ricans. With few exceptions, people eat the same few dishes from day to day.

Breakfast made by my Mama Tica.

Since there was a limited variety in the dishes that were eaten, by locals, there is only a short list of signature Costa Rica meals. The number one most common dish that would be found with every meals regardless of the main course is some variety of rice and beans. For breakfast, gallo pinto is eaten everyday of the week, which is rice and beans mixed into one dish. Whereas for lunch and dinner, rice and beans are served as two different sides, still served together.

Out to lunch in San José.
Yuka at the market.
Pineapple at the market.

Continuing on, the the Costa Rican version of a salad consists of lettuce, carrot and tomato. Another common side dish is plantain which is a fruit that looks like a banana, but tastes more like a potato. Plantains are commonly stir fried on a stove top and slightly sweetened, or they can be baked to taste more similar to a potato. They can also be fried and turned into chips. Empanadas are another regularly eaten food, which is fried dough filled with chicken, beef, or potato. Yuca has a similar taste to potato, and is cooked in a similar way whether mashed or in the form of fries. These dishes are typically eaten with a small piece of chicken, or fried fish. Lastly, a big component of their diet is the large variety of fruit. There are many fruits that are only grown in Costa Rica, and in abundance. This means that there are many different varieties of fruit juices that people drink regularly. A few examples of popular fruits are bananas, mango, pineapple, guava, Maracuyá, and star fruit, just to name a few. Also, coffee beans grow best in warm places like Costa Rica so coffee is always a common drink, according to Kittler, P. G., & Suche(2004).

Drinking juice with my friend Celina.

Considering the sheer size of the United States alone, it is clear to say that the diets of people across the country ranges vastly. Beyond that though the United States is an overall more diverse place, in almost every aspect, than Costa Rica. In turn this means that by default people will be eating different foods from one another. With both of those things being said, each region, and even each state, has its own staple foods that it is known for.

The diet of one person to the next varys tremendously more than it does in Costa Rica. Although there are a few dishes that people tend to think of as being authentically American such as pizza, macaroni and cheese, and french fries for example, these are only a small part of the description of what Americans eat from day to day, according to Kittler, & Sucher (2004). It is so challenging to describe what typical foods are in America, since the country is such a melting pot. Historically, people have come from all different parts of the world and all different cultures. This means that they have different habits, lifestyles, preferences, and priorities. Therefore, the diets of Americans ranges hugly, from bodybuilders who have restricting, nutrient dense meal plans that they must follow in order to obtain the physique that they desire, to busy hard working people that eat fast food as many of their meals since they may not have the time to cook for themselves.

From what I have been discussing in the previous paragraphs, I have chosen to delve into the health and nutritional side of these two countries diets. From the research that I have done, I will create a hypothesis on the causes of a few strengths and weaknesses of each country.

Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations has provided Costa Rica with some general guidelines to follow in order to maintain a nutrient dense diet. This nutrition information has been provided by various government ministries, the national nutrition institute, and the Institute of Nutrition of Central America and Panama. However there is limiting information provided on the website.

The bulk of the message on the website is as  following, “Costa Rica uses the healthy eating circle, which is divided into four food groups: cereals, legumes and starchy vegetables; vegetables and fruits; animal-source foods; fats and sugars. Water and images of physical activity are placed outside of the circle.” Following that there is a list of eleven rules that people should follow in order to maintain a healthy diet. The first few on the list are as follows,

  • A diet is healthy when it is varied, hygienic, and natural.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Eat rice and beans; they are the basis of the everyday diet.
  • Eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables of different colours every day.

Although many of these points seem to be helpful for a person that is attempting to improve their wellness, compared to the nutrition recommendations that the United States has advised its citizen to live by, it is lacking many aspects of nutrition.

The United States of America has provided its citizens with a robust resource explaining what the diet of a healthy person should look like. It goes into great detail about nearly any components of nutrition, such as, oils, sugars, fats, trans fats, alcohol, sodium, dairy, fruits, and vegetables. These are what the recommended daily nutrients should look like.

According to, Americans are not consuming many of the dietary guidelines. “About three-fourths of the population has an eating pattern that is low in vegetables, fruits, dairy, and oils,” and “Most Americans exceed the recommendations for added sugars, saturated fats, and sodium.” This improper diet of Americans is likely directly correlated to the high percentage of overweight Americans. See the graph has.

It is fascinating that with having the intention of providing everyone with an equitable resource regarding nutrition, there is such a high percentage of Americans that are not following it whatsoever. shows some graphs. It is a relatively well known fact that the United States has the most unhealthy diet in comparison to the rest of the world. Based on my observation from being in Costa Rica for four months, I noted that there were much fewer people that were morbidly obese. Unlike in the United States. In the United States, it is likely that seeing many morbidly obese people is quite common. The U.S is also notorious for having a wide range of body shapes and sizes. However, in Costa Rica, there was a much more common trend among the appearance of people’s looks, at least in physical health. Men were fairly short, and very skinny. Whereas woman generally were closer to the average American female height, but nearly all of the woman had the same build, being slightly overweight and carrying the weight in their midsection. I saw only a handful of severely overweight people.

After doing research and thinking back on my observations, I cannot help but think that the observable eating habits of Americans and the observable eating habits of Costa Ricans have a direct correlation to the overall wellness of each population. The American diet varies tremendously from region to region, and even more so from person to person. It is also true to say that health and wellness of Americans ranges nearly as much as the eating habits. Whereas both the eating habits, and the health and wellness of Costa Ricans is much more similar throughout the country.

After experiencing life in Costa Rica, I have learned that people behave in certain ways for specific reasons. Taking all of my biases with me as an American down to Costa Rica forced me to step back and question  my own instinctual behaviors. Although culture can be changed, often times people do not realize that it is something that they do not pick. If the culture that one was raised in is having unhealthy eating habits, then they will continue with that habit as they as the progress through life, unless they make the conscious decisions to change their daily habits. As wellness and eating habits continue to be analyzed, it is crucial that people remember that eating habits are a part of a society and become ingrained in us. The individual person should not entirely be blamed for their habits. People are a part of something larger than themselves that they do not even realize many times, and they may not have the  knowledge or resources to be able to maker the right choices for themselves. If people want real change to be made, it must be made by changing the bigger picture, instead of within a single person.

Overall, the culture that a society has built around food appears to be directly correlated to the health and wellness of that society. With Costa Rica being fairly small, and having more of a commonly widespread culture, the wellness of the people are more similar. This correlation also holds true for the diversity that the United States has in all aspects, including our diet. With such a diverse diet among people, there is also a wide range of people who live healthier lifestyles, as well as people who live unhealthy lifestyles. If the culture around food could change in a positive way, then the United States as whole would be able to change and have healthier lifestyles.

Beach weekend with Katy and Adam.

Here is the link to one of my blog posts from studying abroad.


Works Cited


Montanari, M. (2006). Food is culture. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Bryant, C. A., DeWalt, K. M., Courtney, A., & J. Schwartz (2003). The cultural feast an introduction to food and society. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth.

Kittler, P. G., & Sucher, K. (2004). Food and culture (Fourth Edition ed.). Australia: Cengage Learning.

Kaplan, D. M. (2012). The philosophy of food. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

(2018). Costa Rica. Retrieved April 4, 2018.

Arias, L. (2016, March 24). Costa Rican diet includes too much salt, processed food, experts say. Retrieved April 30, 2018.

Monge-Rojas, R. (2017, February 06). Costa Rica. Retrieved April 30, 2018.

(April 30). Chapter 2 Shifts Needed To Align With Healthy Eating Patterns. Retrieved April 30, 2018.

Preston-Werner, T. (2009). “Gallo Pinto”: Tradition, Memory, and Identity in Costa Rican Foodways. Journal of American Folklore, 122(483), 11. doi:10.2307/20487644

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