New 'African' diet promotes cultural roots

Couscous, light coconut milk, plantains and fava beans — you won’t find these items in your typical American “soul-food” dish, but these are the some of the foods being promoted in the new African Heritage Diet Pyramid.

The African Heritage Diet Pyramid is the latest traditional food model introduced by Oldways. The nonprofit food and nutrition education organization launched the traditional African-diet based model Wednesday.

The pyramid is different from USDA’s My Healthy Plate eating guide that first lady Michelle Obama has been promoting as it is culturally based.

The bottom of the pyramid comprises green vegetables such as collards, mustards and spinach — which are staples in traditional African cuisines. Fruits, vegetables and nuts are also recommended for daily consumption. At the top of the pyramid are dairy products and sweets, which should be limited to once a week.

“Science tells us that eating traditional diets, which are mainly plant-based, real foods, and whole grains, reduces the risk of chronic disease,” said Sara Baer-Sinnot, President of Oldways. “These chronic illnesses are a big problem for the African-American population.”

The cultural food model, made possible through a grant from the WalMart Foundation was designed specifically for African-Americans “to reintroduce them to lost roots of cuisine, optimal health and beautiful foods.”

Oldways cites a number of studies on its Web site that report people of African descent who eat traditional foods are healthier than who adopt a typical Western diet.

And it’s no secret that black Americans suffer from a number of health problems.

A September American Heart Association report revealed that African-Americans develop hypertension more frequently and rapidly than white.

Non-Hispanic blacks have a 77 percent risk of diagnosed diabetes compared to non-Hispanic white adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

African-American women have the highest rates of being overweight or obese, compared to other groups in the U.S. With about four out of five African-American women are overweight or obese.

These dire statistics are one of the reasons why Constance Brown-Riggs, an award-winning dietitian and certified diabetes educator, said she would recommend the new African Heritage Diet Pyramid to her patients.

“The contemporary African-American diet tends to be very high in sodium, high in bad fats like saturated fats, and high in sugar — all these translate into health problems, like diabetes,” she told theGrio.

“But, the African Heritage Diet Pyramid is the complete opposite.”

Brown-Riggs was also part of the African Heritage Diet Pyramid Advisory Committee, a 16-member team of experts — culinary historians, nutrition scientists and health experts — who collaborated to help develop the food model.

The diet is a recommendation not only for African-Americans but also for Afro-Caribbeans, Afro-Latinos and those of African-descent throughout the diaspora.

“Wherever African-Americans landed as they were transported [in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade],” Brown-Riggs said.

The nutritional consequences of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade were reviewed in a 2001 study. One study finds that sodium levels decrease from West to East: “highest in the U.S., mid-range in Jamaica, and lowest in Nigeria.” High sodium intake tends to lead to higher blood pressure.

However, it should be noted that the lifestyle of Africans on the continent is quite different from that of African-Americans. It’s that difference that certified nutritionist Adiana Castro said might make the African Heritage Diet Pyramid difficult to promote.

“The way we live now is different from how Africans lived a long time ago and even today,” said Castro.

For example, many Africans buy fresh fruits and vegetables every day at local markets and because the workday in many African countries tends to be shorter, African women are able to cook more, whereas many Americans are well accustomed to fast-food meals.

Brown-Riggs admits that the African Heritage Food Pyramid may require a lifestyle change for those who want to adopt it. There are also alternatives, such as buying frozen fruits and vegetables if they cannot be purchased fresh.

She says African-Americans may be more likely to embrace the African Heritage Food model simply because it features foods that they may be more familiar with, such as black-eyed peas and sweet potatoes.

In the end, Brown-Riggs says it’s also a way for people of African-descent to tap into their cultural roots.

Sankofa,” Brown-Riggs said, making reference to the indigenous Ghanaian idea of remembering where you came from. “You want to look back and see what they [African people] have been eating before.”