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Can the African-American Diet be Made Healthier Without Giving up Culture

Genesis Belle


African-Americans have dietary preferences born from cultural influences and necessity. The preference for a particular type of cuisine called soul food has resulted in various health problems for African-Americans. Soul food typically involves fried foods and lots of fatty meats prepared with rich gravies. African-Americans associate these foods with social interactions and also with their history of slavery. Therefore any efforts to get them to eat other types of healthier foods are met with resistance and are seen as trying to eradicate Black culture. Different sources have shown that it is still possible to eat the foods associated with soul food in a healthier way so that African-Americans can overcome their high rates of obesity and cardiovascular disease.

Whenever most African-American families get together, their social interactions are centered around food. A type of cuisine called soul food is very popular among African-Americans, especially the ones who live in the South. It is more than just a type of cuisine. It signifies the history of African-Americans in America and is seen as an integral part of Black culture. Unfortunately, soul food is not a healthy type of food, and African-Americans have some of the highest rates of obesity and heart disease because of eating this type of food. The different publications used to research this topic will answer questions about the effects of cultural influences on the soul food diet, the health effects of eating this food on African-Americans, and what can be done to encourage healthier eating habits. Even though the typical soul food diet is not very healthy, it is possible to make the food healthy without giving up the culture.

What Effect Have Cultural Influences Had on the Soul Food Diet?

In order to assess how cultural influences have affected the African-American diet, it is necessary to look briefly at the history of African-Americans in the United States. In her article, “Where Settlers, Slaves and Natives Converged, a Way of Eating Was Born,” Geneva Collins (2007) discussed the history of southern cuisine. According to her article, a convergence of different types of foods caused by the cultural fusion of the English settlers, Native Americans, and African slaves was the basis of Southern cuisine. The African slaves learned how to fry, boil, and roast dishes using pork, pork fat, corn, sweet potatoes, and local green leafy vegetables which were the styles of cooking used by the British, French, Americans, and Spanish (Collins, 2007, p. F01). The Native Americans influenced a lot of the cooking techniques and dishes prepared by the African slaves. Typical southern cuisine; such as corn pudding, pumpkin pie, Brunswick stew, and hominy grits; are examples of this influence. The African slaves brought black-eyed peas and rice, yams, okra, and watermelon from their country (“History,” 2006).

A lot of the foods that Black Americans eat today are influenced by the dominant American culture. The typical Western diet consists of high amounts of fat and salt, and meals are centered around meat instead of vegetables. In her article “Soul Fooled? Eating ‘Black’ May Be Healthier than You Think,” Egypt Freeman (1996) described this issue. She mentioned that the original African slave diet consisted of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. The African slaves also cooked their food over open pits or fireplaces. This healthier way of eating persisted over many decades until more Black Americans became acclimated to the dominant Western culture. According to Lauren Schwann, M.S., R.D., a Pennsylvania based nutritional consultant, African-Americans in the early part of the century “weren’t as reliant upon processed and refined foods… Sharecroppers ate off the land and even black folks who traveled to the cities still kept gardens to grow fresh fruits and vegetables” (in Freeman, 1996). A U.S. Department of Agriculture survey found that African-American adults obtained about 35 percent of their calories from fat and 12 percent from saturated fat. Nutrition experts say that 30 percent or less of calories should be from fat (Clark, 1999, p. C10). These results are partly because of African-Americans adopting more of the eating habits of the dominant Western culture.

In African-American culture, food has been the center of social interaction. Delores James (2004) found that African-Americans in north central Florida felt that eating healthier food meant giving up part of their culture. The fried fish, yams, ham hocks, fried chicken and gravy are foods eaten as part of Sunday dinner, which is a big time for African-American families to be together with immediate and extended family to talk while eating good food. This ritual is seen as being an integral part of African-American culture. The popular perception that many soul food dishes were created from the scraps that slave owners gave to their slaves is another reason why many African-Americans are reluctant to give up these foods. Michael Twitty, a descendant of enslaved colonial Virginians and a culinary historian who specializes in African-American food, disputes this perception. He said that the slaves had gardens, and they were allowed to hunt and fish (Collins, 2007, p. F01). Regardless of this fact, soul food has heavy connections with African-American history, and that is why many African-Americans are reluctant to give up eating soul food. The reason why a lot of African-Americans serve the typical soul food is that they want to be considered good hosts or hostesses, and social graces prevent guests from asking for healthier foods. In addition, many friends and relatives are resistant to eating healthier types of soul food. This may be because they feel that it will not taste as good (James, 2004, p. 350).

What Health Effects Have Been Linked to the African-American Soul Food Diet?

Since the typical soul food diet involves large amounts of meat, fat, and sugar, there is a large risk of health related illnesses such as obesity, heart disease, and stroke resulting from eating this type of diet. African-Americans typically choose foods such as fried chicken, barbecued ribs, baked macaroni and cheese, sugary fruit drinks, and sweets such as sweet potato pie, which are typical soul food meals. In his article, “Exercise and Good Diet Play a Major Role in Longevity of Most African-Americans,” Donald Scott (1999), writes about the health problems that plague minority groups. Many ethnic groups have higher incidences of diabetes, hypertension, cancer, and heart disease when compared to the white population. Another study published in The Journal of Behavioral Medicine found that 35 percent of all cancer deaths in the U.S may be attributed to dietary factors. The study found that fewer than one quarter of adults consume the recommended five or more daily servings of fruits and vegetables, and minorities consume even less than that. This has contributed to unusually high rates of cancer incidences in African-Americans. A survey done by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that 88 percent of African-Americans ate no dark green leafy vegetables, and about 94 percent had no deep yellow vegetables on any given day of the survey. Most African-American adults fall short of the Recommended Dietary Allowances for vitamin E, vitamin B-6, calcium, magnesium, and zinc. They also obtained about 35 percent of their calories from fat and 12 percent from saturated fat. Nutritionists recommend that 30 percent or less of calories be from fat and less than 10 percent from saturated fat (Clark, 1999, p. C10). According to another article in The Journal of the American Medical Association, African-Americans have the highest obesity prevalence at 33.9 percent (Gostin, 2007, p. 87).

In her article, “African-American Food and Nutrition: From Survival to Choice,” Barbara Dixon (1997) points out some interesting tidbits on how soul food is prepared. Since early African-Americans worked long, strenuous hours in the fields, the food they ate had to be hearty. As a result rice, beans, and greens were cooked with ham hocks, bacon, and “fat back” (p. 3B). Corn meal and flour were added to a lot of dishes to add more calories and flavor. Many of the meats they ate were preserved with salt, and they fried many of their foods. While this method worked for African-Americans in the early part of the century, it has just contributed to the high rates of obesity in the more sedentary, modern day African-American. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a report in 2002 stating that African-American men have the highest rates of prostrate cancer and hypertension in the world and are twice as likely as white men to develop diabetes. Lorelei Di Sogra, Ed.D., R.D., director of the National Cancer Institute’s “5 A Day for Better Health Program” says that, “Diet is a risk factor for many diseases that affect Black men” (in “National”, 2002).

What Can Be Done to Encourage Healthier Eating Habits for African-Americans?

As pointed out earlier, it has been difficult to encourage African-Americans to eat healthier due to their strong cultural beliefs regarding food. To them food is about preserving cultural traditions and fostering strong familial ties. Therefore, a good approach to encouraging healthier eating habits would involve teaching people to cook soul food in healthier ways such as baking, roasting, or broiling meats instead of frying. The Philadelphia Tribune suggests that the food pyramid be changed to reflect the different types of food that African-Americans consume. For instance, the bread and cereal group could include foods like corn bread, grits, and hominy. The vegetable group could include sweet potatoes, coleslaw, and okra. The reasoning behind this is that maybe Black people can eat a more balanced diet by picking from the foods that they are already used to (“Black Culture”, 2004). This is important because according to the Tennessee Tribune article “ADA Survey Says African-Americans’ Nutrition Attitudes Differ in Many Ways” (1997), 34 percent of Black Americans find the Food Guide Pyramid “very useful” in making food choices (p. 24).

According to Wiley Mullins, owner of Uncle Wiley’s Southern Classics, many traditional African-American foods are healthy. Yams, sweet potatoes, and collard greens are examples of foods that are high in vitamins and nutrients (in Freeman, 1996, p. 42). Many doctors and nutritionists agree that avoiding dairy products and eating a more plant based diet is essential for the health of African-Americans. Dr. Carolyn Coker Ross, M.D. says that, “African-Americans need to return to a more natural way of eating.” She also points out that the focus should be on being healthy, not thin, due to eating less meat and putting the emphasis on vegetables and fruit (in Freeman, 1996, p. 42).

Education is also key to helping African-Americans eat a more healthy diet. Many African-Americans receive their nutritional information from television and radio. They also tend to receive nutritional information from their doctors. It has also been reported that many Black Americans have problems understanding nutrition guidelines. According to Dixon (1997), “Media focused on African-American audiences have much credibility, particularly if the sources are people of color” (p. 3B). If churches and other organizations held seminars to encourage healthier eating habits, it would help the community to make healthier choices. It would also help to teach more adults about their African ancestors and how they ate, since they ate much more differently than African-Americans do today. With this knowledge, they wouldn’t have to feel like they were giving up their culture. In a study titled “Cultural Aspects of African-American Eating Patterns” (Airhihenbuwa & Kumanyika, 1996), it was found that many African-Americans did not know the origins of soul food and were under the assumption that foods such as sweet potatoes and chicken originated in Africa. The study also found that many Black Americans feel that soul food is unhealthy and that the food should be modified so that it would contain less saturated fat and salt. It is possible to pass down healthier cooking methods to future generations of African-Americans (Airhihenbuwa & Kumanyika, 1996).

Many cookbooks and soul food restaurants have started to modify traditional soul food recipes so that they are healthier. It is also important to involve the Black community in educating others on nutrition. This can be done at beauty shops, barber shops, schools, civic organizations, churches, etc. (Dixon, 1997, p. 3B). Many nutritional experts agree that it is important to have a diet with as much variety as possible. Black Americans can be encouraged to use other types of greens in addition to collards. Many substitute foods are rich in needed nutrients. It is important that they reduce the amount of dairy that they consume and eat less meat with their meals. The early Africans had a rich diet of whole grains, vegetables, and fruits, and it would be beneficial for modern day African-Americans to be aware of that fact. It would be beneficial because they would be able to eat healthy without feeling that they are giving up their culture.

Making healthy foods less expensive would also encourage healthier eating habits among African-Americans. Many supermarkets in predominantly Black neighborhoods rarely carry a large selection of healthy foods, and when they do carry them, the prices are more than the average person can afford (Airhihenbuwa & Kumanyika, 1996).

The research produced thus far has shown that soul food is a rich mix of different cultural influences and has evolved from healthy sustenance for the early slaves to an unhealthy cuisine for the modern day African-American. Unhealthy cooking methods and a lack of variety have contributed to the perception of soul food as being unhealthy. The disproportionate amount of Black people afflicted with nutritionally related diseases is directly related to the unhealthy preparation of soul food and in the choice of foods used to prepare it. It is clear from the research that it is possible for African-Americans to still enjoy soul food in a healthier way without giving up the culture. Education, healthier preparation methods, and more dietary variety are the keys.


ADA survey says African-Americans’ nutrition attitudes differ in many ways. (1997, September 15). The Tennessee Tribune , p. 24. Retrieved November 3, 2007, from Ethnic News Watch (ENW) database (Document ID: 495735451).

Airhihenbuwa, C .O., & Kumanyika, S. (1996, September). Cultural aspects of African-American eating patterns. Ethnicity & Health, 1 (3), 245. Retrieved December 1, 2007, from Academic Search Premier database.

Black culture contributes to obesity. (2004, October 3). Philadelphia Tribune: Obesity , p. 3. Retrieved December 8, 2007, from Ethnic News Watch (ENW) database (Document ID: 732404361).

Clark, L. (1999, January 27). Poor eating habits - African-Americans at risk, survey reveals: Food guide pyramid; path to better nutrition and better health. Sentinel , p. C10. Retrieved December 8, 2007, from Ethnic News Watch (ENW) database (Document ID: 490560711).

Collins, G. (2007, May 9). Where settlers, slaves and natives converged, a way of eating was born. The Washington Post , p. F01. Retrieved November 20, 2007, from Lexis-Nexis database.

Dixon, B.M. (1997, April 3). African-American food and nutrition: From survival to choice. Call & Post, p. 3B. Retrieved December 9, 2007, from Ethnic News Watch (ENW) database (Document ID: 493612161).

Freeman, E. (1996, February). Soul fooled? Eating ‘Black’ may be healthier than you think. HealthQuest, p.42. Retrieved October 22, 2007, from Ethnic News Watch (ENW) database (Document ID: 5824029810).

Gostin, L.O. (2007, January 3). Law as a tool to facilitate healthier lifestyles and prevent obesity. The Journal of the American Medical Association, 297 (1), 87-90. Retrieved November 26, 2007, from JAMA database.

The history of African-American cooking. (2006, February 9). The Jacksonville Free Press: ORIGINS in Black History , p.2.  Retrieved December 9, 2007, from Ethnic News Watch (ENW) database (Document ID: 1007375731).

James, D.C.S. (2004). Factors influencing food choices, dietary intake, and nutrition related attitudes among African-Americans: application of a culturally sensitive model. Ethnicity and Health. 9 (4), 349-367.

Jonsson, P. (2006, February 6). Backstory: Southern discomfort food. The Christian Science Monitor, p.20. Retrieved October 9, 2007, from Lexis-Nexis database.

National Cancer Institute cites link between diet and life-threatening diseases in African-American men. (2002, October 1). Speakin’ Out News , p.10. Retrieved December 9, 2007, from Ethnic News Watch (ENW) database (Document ID: 494584881).

Scott, D. (1999, June 29). Exercise and good diet play a major role in longevity of most African-Americans. Philadelphia Tribune, p.3F. Retrieved December 9, 2007, from Ethnic News Watch (ENW) database (Document ID: 490780101).