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Rethinking Traditional Soul Food: The Modern Black Diet

We all know where the traditional African American diet (aka soul food) comes from – slavery. Although we love the taste of our fried foods, heaps of gravy, and syrupy sweet desserts, it has become the cause of many chronic diseases that are affecting the health and longevity of black people in this country.

According to the CDC, African Americans are the most obese people in the U.S. with the majority of us dying from heart disease. Not only does poor nutrition cause heart disease and obesity, but has also been linked to stroke, cancer, and diabetes.

If that isn’t scary enough, our poor dietary habits have now been passed on to our children as this is the first generation who are now getting (adult onset) Type 2 diabetes, which was a disease known to be acquired by adults derived from years of poor nutrition. We have become so complacent in our eating habits that consuming traditional soul food and fast food have become a normal way of life. The abundance of processed food, fat, and sugar is overloading our children’s tiny organs and are now at risk for chronic diseases possibly decreasing their life expectancy. Our current generation will actually be the first that will die before their parents if something is not done soon.

How did we begin to eat this way? The concept of soul food referred to a way of preparing a limited variety of food and cooking it in a way to make it extremely satisfying to prevent hunger while working in the fields. Many people say that by virtue of having to work long strenuous hours, the food we ate had to be hearty and calorie filled in order to sustain our overworked bodies. But in the 21st century, many of us have desk jobs where we sit for 8 hours a day, sit in our car for our long commute home, and then come home and sit some more in front of either the TV or computer. But since this is the case, why are we still eating like slaves? Actually, frying foods like pork and pork fat came from the Europeans. Meanwhile the original Africans ate a more vegetable and plant based diet consisting of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables (black eyed peas, rice, yams, and okra).

The nostalgia we have with regards to eating soul food and the familial images it conjures up is all well and good, but when is self-responsibility and caring for the next generation going to take precedence over eating that next XL plate of fried chicken and macaroni and cheese? Many of us feel that giving up this food would be giving up our culture, but is it really our culture to begin with? Or is it the diet they gave us? Similar to the names they gave us?

But today’s obesity epidemic isn’t completely our fault. Due to tricky food labeling, it’s hard to know what is truly “healthy” anymore. Not to mention that black people are constantly being targeted by the media with advertising campaigns telling us (and showing us) how delicious this fast food crap can be. From Annie the Popeye chicken queen with gospel choirs singing in the background, rapping McDonald’s commercials using ghetto vernacular, and Mary J Blige’s crispy chicken fiasco, we are being bombarded with messages appealing to our dietary shortcomings. Advertisers are using traditional black culture to entice us to make us fatter and sicker, while their pockets are simply getting fatter. We are the only people who are financing the genocide against us while at the same time making the Paula Deens rich off of OUR traditional southern recipes…but that’s a whole other story entirely.

Look, I know soul food tastes amazingly delicious, but making the decision to start eating healthy doesn’t have to mean deprivation. It also doesn’t mean that you now have to start eating salmon, quinoa, and wheatgrass either. It’s simply learning to replace your favorite ingredients with healthier alternatives. You can start one meal at a time.

As mentioned we don’t have to completely abandon our way of eating. It’s just about learning how to make the dishes we love to eat but cooking them in a healthier way. We should definitely keep the vegetables like greens, black eyes peas, and yams, but instead try to minimize the unhealthy ingredients usually added like pork fat, ham hocks, and bacon. You can start by instead of frying your meat, try baking. Even if you still want that crispy taste, it doesn’t have to be swimming in lard, you can bake it and fry it lightly to get the texture. Let’s cut back on the butter and start using healthier oils like olive and coconut. Try to eliminate the sodas and aim for more water. Eat more fruit instead of the cakes, cookies, and pies.

Making the decision to take control of your health begins with education, awareness, and being open to healthier cooking methods. Healthy eating is a lifestyle choice – one that will make your life more enjoyable with less trips to the doctor and less pharmaceutical drugs. I’m not saying it will be easy - nothing worthwhile in life usually is. It all starts with a decision.

Take it one day at a time.

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