From Collins Dream Kitchen in Jackson, Miss. to Gladys Knight’s Chicken and Waffles in Atlanta, Ga., soul food restaurants are an American staple. But traditional comforts foods are undergoing a few changes, one gram of sodium at a time.
At Sylvia’s Soul Food Restaurant in New York City, good nutrition is just as popular as the yellow cornbread.
“About 10 years ago, our family became very involved with making sure soul food didn’t get a bad rep,” said Trenness Woods-Black, the owner of Sylvia’s restaurant. “Our food remains a cultural identity marker for African-Americans while at the same time being healthy and tasting good.”
Woods-Black is the granddaughter of the legendary proprietress Sylvia Woods and she makes an effort promote nutrition at the restaurant.
Food and health awareness has become a national initiative thanks largely to first lady Michelle Obama. Her recent appearance at an Olive Garden restaurant in Hyattsville, Md. has motivated eateries across the country to cut down the fats and offer healthier options.
“We’re going to make sure that we support our first lady and her health initiative in whatever ways we can,” said Woods-Black.
The Save Half For Later program in the village of Harlem in New York City is a local effort to educate the community about portion control and wellness. Sylvia’s Soul Food Restaurant will be the first business in Central Harlem to launch the program and will offer plastic containers to customers who want to save their meals.
These initiatives come during a time when Americans are getting larger and dying of health-related diseases, according to the American Heart Association. In the African-American community, where soul food is a cultural tradition, food-driven illnesses are epidemic.
The Center for Disease Control reports that African-Americans have the highest obesity rates compared to their Hispanic and non-Hispanic counterparts.
“It’s the normal woes in soul food that make some of the dishes unhealthy,” said Dr. Tyeese Gaines, health editor at theGrio.com. “The sugars, the oils, the frying-all these things make it taste good but lead to heart disease, cholesterol and diabetes.”
Gaines, an emergency medicine physician at Raritan Bay Medical Center in New Jersey, says that the government could offer initiatives for restaurants that are cutting calories and saturated oils from their foods.
But, the recent trend indicates that people are more aware of what is okay to put into their bodies. Turkey is now a popular alternative over pork and trans fats have been banned in many states.
The key is to find a balance between healthy food and good tastes. At Sylvia’s, where you can find finger-licking grilled shrimp, the healthy measures seem to be paying off.
“We’re hoping that other restaurants around the country will pick up the call,” said Woods-Black.