How Can African American Food Be Healthy?

An interview with Constance Brown-Riggs, M.S.E.D., R.D.

You can find Constance Brown-Riggs, author of Living Well with Diabetes, at the crossroads of nutrition, diabetes and the cultural issues of people of color. So she is the perfect person to advise Oldways in developing its new African Heritage Pyramid -- and to give iVillage insight into its healthfulness.

What makes the African Heritage Diet Pyramid different from, say, the USDA’s My Plate healthy eating guide?
This pyramid is culturally based -- it accentuates positive aspects of African culture by looking back at its heritage. Historically, people of African descent didn’t have the health problems that modern-day African Americans do. The pyramid is designed to help African Americans reclaim their health by reclaiming their history.

It’s true: As a group, African Americans suffer from disproportionate rates of chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and high cholesterol. Why is that?
It’s multifaceted. Many African Americans live in “food deserts” -- inner-city neighborhoods where there’s no easy access to fruits and vegetables, but fast food is readily available. These neighborhoods also often don’t feel safe, so the people who live in them are less likely to get outside and be active, or even take a walk. And once a person develops a chronic condition and sees a doctor, it’s often late in the progression of the disease, and he or she is already suffering complications. Plus, there’s a lack of educational tools -- which is where something like the African Heritage Diet Pyramid comes in.

What is it about African American cuisine that’s so healthy?
When most people hear the phrase “African American cuisine,” they think of soul food and all the negative aspects of soul food -- high in fat and calories, greasy, salty, mostly foods you should stay away from. But the pyramid isn’t based on those types of foods, which aren’t inherent to true African-based dishes; rather, it incorporates traditional cuisines from the four geographical areas that make up the African Diaspora -- Africa, the Caribbean, South America and the American South.

This means curries, lots of rice combined with various vegetables or beans, leafy greens like spinach and collards, sweet potatoes, lean meats in small portions, seafood, nuts and healthy oils. In addition to the pyramid, we’ve developed 12 “Plates of Expression,” which are dishes representing all four regions in the Diaspora; you can find the recipes on the site. 

Sounds too delicious to take pounds off!
Well, it’s not a weight-loss diet per se. This is something that can be confusing. Eating according to the African Heritage Diet Pyramid isn’t about what you shouldn’t eat, but rather about what your diet should include. It just so happens that these foods are not only packed with disease-fighting nutrients. They are also all low in fat, calories and sodium, and many are high in fiber as well, which can help with weight loss. And of course, being overweight or obese are risk factors for many chronic conditions, like diabetes and heart disease.

But could simply switching from, say, a fried chicken and biscuits-based diet to one that relies more on spinach and seafood and so forth really make a difference?
Absolutely. Many research studies prove that making these types of changes in the diet can lower blood pressure, control blood sugar, reverse obesity and have a positive effect on cardiovascular health. And most patients, when they come in, know that dietary changes can help. What they don’t know is how to go about making those changes. That’s where the African Heritage Diet Pyramid can be especially helpful: It illustrates that healthful eating isn’t as difficult as one might think, and that small, gradual changes can make a difference.

It’s important to note as well that African Americans aren’t the only folks who stand to benefit from adapting this style of eating. Anyone, no matter what his or her ancestry, can experience the same health-boosting payoffs.

The bottom tier of the pyramid isn’t about food at all. It shows people exercising, eating together, gardening. What is that all about?
Healthy behaviors are just as important to staying well as eating healthy food, so the pyramid is designed to make that point. What you see pictured at the very base of the pyramid are representations of things you can and should do every day to stay as healthy as possible, including being active, whether you run, walk with a friend or garden, and eating together as a family. It’s not just about food: It’s about what food can mean -- a way to bring the family together as a whole.

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