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Try African Heritage Cooking for a Healthier Diet

Here's how to enjoy meals without fatty, salty, processed ingredients

By Brenda Atchison

They say that love is first and foremost felt in the heart. Yet, as we celebrate love, we often ignore the heart. Approximately every 40 seconds, someone in America will have a heart attack, according to the American Heart Association. Winter months are particularly brutal — falling temperatures can increase risks, especially for people over 65.

African Heritage Cooking
Credit: Adobe

We can reduce our risk by dressing warmly and doing light physical activity to warm up before anything more strenuous. We can also eat more healthfully.

Unhealthy food habits are problematic for all Americans. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the typical American diet is too high in calories, saturated fat, sodium and added sugars, while lacking adequate amounts of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, calcium and fiber. This eating pattern contributes to high blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels — all related to heart disease, the leading cause of death in the United States.

'Southern Diet' Contributes to Hypertension

This is especially true for African Americans. Our stereotypical “Southern Diet” of fatty meat, fried food and lard-soaked vegetables evolved from a time of slavery when we had limited access to food. As part of our survival, we learned how to use salt, fat and sugar to make anything taste good. And that became part of our food heritage.

But these additives are not what define our cuisine. And, truth be known, they are partly what’s killing us.

Brenda Atchison
Brenda Atchison  |  Credit: Compliments of Brenda Atchison

In October, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association looked at why black adults have more hypertension than white adults. Researchers found the “Southern Diet” was the largest measurable difference. African Americans were found to consume a greater quantity of food that is fried, overly salted or saturated in fatty dairy. African Americans were also found to be less likely to eat foods that lower the risk of heart disease, such as vegetables, fruits and whole grains.

When these studies make headlines, people often reject the message or get defensive — and for good reason. Diet is not the sole source of health disparities in communities of color. Political, social, economic and environmental factors all contribute to overall health and well being. Communities of color are often poor and deprived of norms that can lead to improved health outcomes. Undoubtedly, the stress of living poor is toxic.

But it’s also true that too much salt, fat and sugar is toxic.

I learned how to cook from my parents, both Southerners. My mother did not open cans or boxes to prepare a meal. We ate plenty of leafy greens, fresh vegetables and slow-cooked beans for dinner, however meat was the focal point of the meal. Fried chicken, fried pork chops and barbecue spare ribs were staples. Our vegetables were always cooked with a piece of processed fatty meat for flavoring. Starches included candied yams loaded with sugar and butter, macaroni and cheese or mashed potatoes full of cream and butter.

I loved the foods of my youth. But I also observed a darker side. I watched members of my family and community succumb to overwhelming health issues, such as massive strokes, kidney failure, heart attacks, amputations and early death due to hypertension, diabetes and other chronic diseases. My mother and her only sister died from massive strokes; my oldest sister died at 59 from “complications” due to chronic diseases. My cousin lost her legs due to diabetes.


In communities of color, you don’t need to read a research report. Devastation is all around us. It should be noted that I was born, raised and live in Boston.

Bringing Back African Heritage Cooking

The truth is, much of our culinary heritage has been lost. But we can, and should, bring it back.

I teach an African heritage cooking class based on the traditional foods of the African Diaspora originating out of West Africa. It is the same food that I’ve enjoyed since childhood: leafy greens, vegetables, dried beans, sweet potatoes, fresh fruits, herbs and spices. But what’s gone are the additives of modern living: fatty meat, excessive salt and sugar and over-processed ingredients.

It is the food of my heritage, cooked with herbs and spices that delightfully augment the flavor.

Now, I julienne collard greens and sauté them in olive oil with garlic and a bit of apple cider vinegar. I make Mafe stew with sweet potatoes and a melody of fresh vegetables cooked with a selection of herbs and spices. In less than 10 minutes, I whip up a delicious black-eyed pea salad with cucumbers, bell peppers and spices. For dessert, a chopped fruit salad with papaya, mango and other fruits of choice combined with coconut milk and a drizzle of honey is a crowd favorite. Bananas and millet make an excellent breakfast cereal with almond milk, cinnamon, golden raisins and a little honey.

These dishes are simple and easy to prepare. They require less cooking time, leaving more time to enjoy family, friends and a delicious meal. A host of easy and delicious recipes are available on the Oldways website.

Remember to also show your heart love by drinking plenty of water, getting enough physical activity, limiting alcohol and avoiding exposure to tobacco products.

Brenda Atchison Brenda Atchison is an Encore Public Voices fellow with The OpEd Project, ambassador for Oldways A Taste of African Heritage Cooking, and a social entrepreneur. Read More
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