Out of Africa: The Roots of a Heart-Healthy Diet

A new diet pyramid inspires African Americans -- and everyone else -- to learn health secrets from traditional African fare

It’s no secret that African Americans suffer from more than their fair share of serious health challenges. Consider this handful of statistics:

-- African American women are more likely to die from heart disease than women of other races, according to WomensHealth.gov
-- A study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that one in 100 black men and women could develop heart failure before age 50.
-- Fifteen percent of African Americans ages 20 and older have diabetes
-- Nearly half of all African American women have a total cholesterol level that’s too high. 
-- Four out of five African American women are overweight or obese -- meaning they have the highest rates of obesity of any other group.

That last one is especially telling: Excess weight is associated with every one of the other chronic conditions cited, so it stands to reason that diet is at least partly to blame for the health woes of many African Americans. That’s the bad news. Now here’s some good: Today, Oldways, a nonprofit food and nutrition education organization, is introducing the African Heritage Diet Pyramid, based on the traditional diets of the African Diaspora (Africa, the Caribbean, South America and the American South), and presented in the iconic multitiered diagram that clearly illustrates the proportions in which various food groups fit into a healthy diet.

Oldways is partnering with various organizations, including the United Negro College Fund, to spread the word in African American communities about the health benefits of embracing a more traditional diet. But all of us can benefit from the message. After all, the African roots of American cuisine run deep, and not just in the South. Americans of all colors can learn from the healthfulness of traditional African fare. Some highlights:

-- Greens make up the base of the pyramid. “They’re so much a part of the African heritage,” says Oldways president Sara Baer-Sinnott. “Such a great way to get a lot of nutrition, and delicious cooked with healthy oils.” In fact, a recent study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that women who ate one serving of leafy greens per day were 46 percent less likely to develop heart disease than those who don’t; ditto for those women who included three tablespoons of olive oil in their daily diets.

-- Peanuts and other nuts get their own special slot near the base of the pyramid; they are heathy, but we’re used to seeing them grouped higher up, along with meats and other proteins. But nuts are little health-boosting powerhouses, packed with omega-3s, fiber, vitamin E and other elements that have been found to lower bad cholesterol levels, help prevent diabetes and keep arteries clear. “There are lots of studies that show that moderate fat is healthy and that it helps with weight loss because it’s satisfying. People stay on diets when they eat foods like nuts and peanuts,” explains Baer-Sinnott.

-- Herbs, spices and traditional sauces claim a separate spot as well. Many are a great source of antioxidants and can stand in for salt to make food flavorful and delicious.

-- Unlike previous pyramids, which list “grains, mostly whole,” the African Heritage Diet Pyramid recommends “whole grains.” Period. It may seem like a subtle difference, but Baer-Sinnott’s point is that there’s really no reason to be wishy-washy about it. Whole grains are the ideal, so why not be clear and specific?

Now, I’m not African American, but I did grow up south of the Mason-Dixon Line, and I’m a passionate cook, so while I can get behind the health message of the African Heritage Diet Pyramid, I’m most excited about the “Plates of Expression” that Oldways has put together to go along with it. These are 12 different recipes (they’re all are on the site, and they are not complicated), three for each of the four regions of the African Diaspora. There’s pumpkin soup, jollof rice with black-eyed peas (a West African dish), chicken yassa (chicken marinated in onions and served with couscous) and pecan-crusted catfish. The recipes “bring the pyramid to life,” says Baer-Sinnott, and show how the elements of the traditional African diet can come together to create meals that are as delicious as they are healthy. So, enjoy, or should I say, Furahieni chakula chenu!

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