The Chorotega Diet: Two Grains and a Legume

Easy to eat well: beans, rice, and corn

Posted Mar 07, 2012

My friend is 24, a hard working refugee to Costa Rica from Nicaragua. He works as a gardener, or in construction. He never finished high school, and has very few possessions: several pairs of flip-flops, a cell phone, a hair clipper, a few pairs of shorts and shirts, and a bicycle. However, he is in excellent health and rates himself an 8 out of 10 on the Cantril Ladder of life satisfaction, because he loves Costa Rica and he has a healthy baby daughter. He looks forward to a better life with enthusiasm and hope.

What keeps him going? Beans and rice, three times a day, without fail. Beans and rice with occasional chicken, maybe. Maybe a little fish or a pork chop, once a week at the most. But he eats beans and rice, rice and beans for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and he really likes it! In Costa Rica in our village, a kilo of black beans costs about 900 colones ($1.80) and a kilo of white rice is 800 colones ($1.60). Nelson can provide himself with ample calories and protein for less than a dollar a day. Lemons and mangos and coconuts fall off the trees here, so he doesn't have to buy fruit, and vegetables are cheap. A basket of carrots, sweet potatoes, watermelon, tomatoes, onions and peppers costs about $2.00. Interestingly, Nelson doesn't purchase many vegetables. He gets fruit off the trees, and other than that, its beans and rice. He makes the beans and rice every night, eats it for dinner, and then eats it for breakfast and packs the remainder up for lunch. Day after day after day.

I don't think there is any food combination in North America or Europe that is as cheap, fulfilling, nutritious, and inexpensive as the Latin American diet. While all the press goes to the Mediterranean Diet or Osaka Diet for health and weight loss, most people are not aware that the oldest men in the world live in Nicoya, Costa Rica, the only place in the world where the survival gap between old men and old women is small. The Chorotega Diet, as I would call it, is based on the food practices of the indigenous peoples of the Nicoya peninsula in Costa Rica, and it consists of beans, rice, and tortillas made of yellow corn that has been presoaked in potash, then ground and made into coarse flour. These grains are supplemented with fruits and vegetables, and occasional animal protein from fish, beef, pork, or chicken. Millions of people in Latin America consume this diet every day, with little variation, and thrive.

Moreover, in some places like Costa Rica, a family can grow beans, rice, and corn in sufficient quantity during the rainy season that there is enough left over to eat in the dry season. A minifundia or small finca or farm, perhaps 5 acres, can grow enough food to feed a large family, entirely self-sufficiently, and with most of the work done in half the year. With beans, rice, and corn stored in a granera or granary, a family can use these grains all year, and just kill a pig or chicken once in a while, or go fishing, to supplement their protein budget.

Think what it would be like in the United States if every family knew how to prepare good, inexpensive, high quality food for less than a dollar a day. Sure, there is not much variety in beans and rice and tortillas, but with overwhelming evidence that this is a healthy way to eat. In the North, we are pressured to think that our meals must be varied. They must have protein sources, mostly animal. Home cooked meals should look like restaurant meals, complete with courses and varieties and specialties of the day. But what if we accepted a basic food plan that had everything a person needs for life, but not a lot of excess? Goodbye, type 2 diabetes and statin drugs and obesity epidemic. We would have so much more, for so much less. Locavores take note: two grains and a legume are all it takes to make ample nutritious food for hungry families. It should be easy to live this way.