Eat cuisine from our roots for better health

african kings

If you’ve never tried African Heritage cuisine now is the perfect time. Coinciding with Black History Month and American Heart Month, February 1st through 7th is African Heritage & Health Week – a great time to discover why the savory flavors and naturally healthy features of African Heritage cuisine are the next big food trend.

The foods, robust flavors and healthy cooking techniques that were core to the wellbeing of our ancestors from Africa, South America, the Caribbean, and the American South may actually be the path to optimal health. Their plant-based diets were naturally heart-healthy – low in unhealthy fats, sugars, and sodium, and high in nutrient-dense whole foods.

In fact, scientific studies show that many chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and obesity, now prevalent in African-American communities, appear at higher rates as traditional diets are left behind.

For example, research published in the Journal o­f Biomedical Science found that the prevalence of metabolic syndrome — the risk factors for heart disease, stroke and diabetes — in young Tanzanian men increased as they ate less traditional food and more nontraditional foods such as donuts and ice cream. The same trend was found in Botswana.

As the younger population shifts from traditional to a nontraditional lifestyle, weight, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels rise. The elderly in Botswana who are less inclined to change their eating habits are actually healthier.

Today, heart disease is the number one killer of all Americans and stroke is the fourth leading cause of death. Moreover, the risk for getting these diseases is even higher in African-Americans. Black adults are twice as likely as white adults to have a stroke and 1.5 times as likely to have high blood pressure.

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According to the American Heart Association, there is evidence that African-Americans may carry a gene that makes them more salt sensitive – which may attribute to the higher prevalence of high blood pressure. That could explain why more modern, processed diets are contributing to the higher rates.

The more highly processed your food the more sodium you are likely to get. According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 75 percent of Americans’ sodium intake comes from pre-packaged and restaurant food. The ten major sources of excess sodium in the diet are cold cuts and other cured meats, pizza, canned soups, sandwiches, commercial breads, rolls, cheese, meat and snacks.

The good news is you can beat the odds and prevent heart disease or stroke by reclaiming your history and returning to whole unprocessed foods.

“Part of history is, of course, the foods that have sustained a culture,” said Sara Baer-Sinnott, president of Oldways. “African Heritage & Health Week is an opportunity to raise awareness and elevate this cuisine, which is far from the unhealthy soul food some might think of. What better time to dedicate a week to African Heritage and heart health than during Black History Month?”

Oldways, the food and nutrition nonprofit organizing African Heritage and Health Week, challenges everyone to enjoy at least one dish at home or in a restaurant inspired by the cuisine of our African-American ancestors. Your heart and taste buds will be glad you did.

To help you explore a restaurant in your area, Oldways has created a new African Heritage Dine Around section on its website. There, you’ll find dining destinations across the nation, from pop-up shops to fine dining restaurants that serve healthy cuisines from the many regions of Africa and the African Diaspora. From Ethiopian to Ghanaian, Jamaican to Cuban to Southern style, African heritage restaurants bring a wide variety of plant-based dishes, cooking techniques and flavors to our communities.

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If a meal at home shared with family and friends is more appealing, Oldways suggests its own recipe for Jollof rice as an option. Jollof is a traditional African rice dish that is not just delicious and healthy, but budget-friendly too. You’ll also find plenty of other heritage recipes on Oldways’ website.

“The best way to inspire healthy eating is with food that tastes great,” said Baer-Sinnott. “African Heritage and Health Week is a time to motivate and inspire people to bring back healthy ‘old ways’ of eating. We want to stir up excitement and expose all Americans to the delicious, easy-to-prepare, nutritious foods and flavors of African heritage.”

Don’t stop with African Heritage and Health Week – keep the momentum going by signing up for the new African Heritage & Health Quarterly Newsletter. You’ll receive African Heritage & Health program updates, delicious recipes made with wholesome ingredients and information on the latest health studies pertaining to African Americans.

Constance Brown-Riggs, MSEd, RD is an award winning registered dietitian, certified diabetes educator, and national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She is the author of The African American Guide To Living Well With Diabetes and Eating Soulfully and Healthfully with Diabetes. Follow Brown-Riggs on twitter @eatingsoulfully.