Soul Food is Brought Back to Its Healthier Roots

By: Michele Wolfson

If you haven't traveled down to the south and feasted on homemade cornbread, collard greens, and true southern-made grits, you should put it on your bucket-list. Yet, soul food has gotten a bad rap for being a large contributor to the downfall of the health and well-being of African American's. It's factual that African Americans have some of the highest rates of obesity, hypertension, diabetes, heart disease and some cancers of any group in this country, but pointing the finger at soul food for increasing health issues will hopefully change.

Soul food is typically imagined to be unhealthy fare that is caloric and loaded with sugars and bad fats. Over the past several decades, the cuisine has been known as a fast food-type of gastronomy. Take instant grits: A typical north-easterner, such as myself, often finds grits to be a bland and unappealing simply because we are chowing down on a watered down, mass produced version of what the complex, nutty flavored dish is supposed to be. A southerner would never stand for instant grits, as was demonstrated in a scene of the movie My Cousin Vinny when the local man from Alabama informs the Brooklyn bred lawyer that "No self respectin' Southerner uses instant grits. I take pride in my grits."

The roots of soul food are home-cooked meals that used fresh produce and were created out of love. Eco-chef, food activist, and author Bryant Terry says, "Sadly, over the past four decades most of us have forgotten that what many African Americans in the South ate for dinner just two generations ago was diverse, creative, and comprised of a lot of fresh, local, and homegrown nutrient-dense food." In many parts of this nation, soul food, like most foods, has fallen victim to becoming over-industrialized as well as over processed and has been transformed into something that is hardly recognizable from what it started as.

A group of food educators, culinary historians, nutritionists and health experts are reconnecting soul food to its healthier origins. They have put together the Oldways African Heritage Diet Pyramid, a new model for healthful eating designed specifically for African-Americans and descendants of Africans everywhere.

The pyramid draws from the culinary traditions of the American South, the Caribbean, South America and Africa, and shows familiar vegetables like okra and eggplant and fruits like papaya, as well as beans and meats. Unlike other food pyramids, it has a large level that is completely devoted to greens: collards, chard, kale and spinach- all vegetables that have African roots.

It might seem like a difficult task to take modern day soul food cookery and revamp it into a fare that is healthy and can actually promote weight loss, but if people are educated about the food's heritage, it can be possible. Even popular diets like Weight Watchers are promoting soul food as waist-trimming eats and provide healthy recipes that are also pleasing to the taste buds.

Soul food has become comfort food for a lot of Americans. Oldways hopes that their version of soul food dietary guidelines will improve the overall health of American's without taking away from the taste and feel the cuisine offers.

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