When you think of Soul Food, do you think of comfort foods served at family gatherings and holidays that bring feelings of home? Traditional African American comfort foods include homemade macaroni and cheese, fried chicken, red beans and rice, cornbread, seasoned greens, mashed potatoes and gravy, and ice-cold sweet tea. Although many of these foods are not considered the healthy choices, they excite our taste buds and warm our hearts.
During slavery, African Americans made meals from what was available, including leftovers from their master’s tables and vegetables they grew. Meals were often prepared with high amounts of fat, sugar, and salt to meet the nutrient demands of a physically grueling lifestyle and because of limited access to healthier options. As in many cultures, recipes for staple items have been passed down from generation to generation. Today, these traditional, comfort foods remind us of happy times, and can be prepared with healthier ingredients.
Overtime, lifestyles have changed. Most people today don’t engage in the level of physical work that our ancestors did. We sit most of the day and drive almost everywhere we go. Instead of growing, harvesting, and cooking our own food, we frequently go out to eat. The same high fat, high sugar, high salt foods that sustained our ancestors are now causing health issues.
So how do we honor African American heritage while trying to prevent common diseases? Common foods of African heritage are based heavily on whole plant foods. Choose rich, colorful foods like beans, fruits, whole grains, and vegetables that are rich in nutrients and low in unhealthy fats, and don’t forget colorful spices like paprika, nutmeg, cinnamon, and ginger. These anti-inflammatory, nutrient-dense foods prepared in healthy ways help to fight disease like diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease.
Entrées like Jamaican Jerk Chicken or Spicy Southern Barbecued Chicken paired with Good-for-You Cornbread, Caribbean Pink Beans and a mixed salad makes a tasty meal. Smokey Ham and Bean Soup (found on page 22 of the Yummy Benefits Cookbook Volume II) or Smothered Greens will satisfy your soul with less salt and fat. Bean dishes like Barley Hoppin’ John or Red Beans and Rice make great vegetarian dishes and are packed with fiber and protein without all the sodium of the boxed version.
I hope you’ll try these and other revised versions of traditional African American foods. Diabetes and heart disease don’t have to be part of our heritage. Instead, let’s pass on a legacy of pride, good health, and longevity to the next generation.
For more information and strategies to make healthy changes to your diet, contact your local VA to make an appointment with a registered dietitian.
Franella Smith Obi is a registered and licensed dietitian nutritionist with nearly 20 years of clinical nutrition experience. She obtained her master’s degree in creative writing from Southern New Hampshire University in 2015, and has written two novels to date. Currently, Franella provides nutrition and health counseling to veterans at the VA Outpatient Clinic in Greenville, South Carolina and is working on her third novel.