Family prepares to eat Thanksgiving dinner
Many people are choosing to eat healthier at Thanksgiving.

Soul food is cherished by many in the Black community and holds a rich history that traces its origins back to the homeland of once free Africans. Picture the harrowing voyage of our enslaved kin, a journey from the coast of Africa to America on slave ships, where African culinary traditions intertwined with Western culture, birthing the meals that grace our tables today.

From one generation to another, the nutritional richness and health benefits of ancestral food have slowly become a silent contributor to the elevated prevalence of chronic diseases among Black Americans, surpassing rates observed in other racial groups.

Before you dust off your treasured cooking book ahead of Thanksgiving, it’s crucial to grasp how soul food has evolved over the years. Equally important is understanding the imperative need for healthier cooking alternatives to tantalize our taste buds and increase our lifespans and overall well-being.

History of Soul Food

Soul foods originated during slavery. It started in the Deep South, mainly Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi. Low-quality food rations were given to the enslaved, such as pigs’ feet, intestines, ham hocks, hog jowls, and pork necks. The enslaved turned these scraps into meals out of survival, and those dishes evolved and expanded across the U.S. by Black migrants who left the south during the Great Migration.

Dr. Marino Bruce, director of the University of Houston Population Health, said soul food’s evolution during the dark period of slavery had unintended consequences.

“Many adaptations,” he explained, “were born out of necessity and often required the use of cheaper, less nutritious ingredients. The result was a cuisine that sacrificed the inherent health benefits of traditional African foods for the sake of sustenance.”

Soul food dish with fried chick, greens, cornbread, and pie. (Credit: Flickr)

The African Connection

Critics argue that Black Southern Cuisine defies the unhealthy stereotypes often associated with its history. The connection between Southern cuisine and Africa roots itself deeply. Staples like yams, black-eyed peas, collard greens and okra originated in the motherland.

Okra became an ingredient in gumbo, often fried in the Deep South. The least desired cuts of pork, including feet, internal organs, and the head, were given to the enslaved.

Rice was taken from Africa by slave traders to sustain the enslaved during the middle passage. One-pot recipes such as jambalaya, reminiscent of West African jollof rice, have become staples in African cooking. African yams were a staple that was no longer accessible, so sweet potatoes became a suitable substitute in meals.

Millions of Black people migrated from the South to the North during the Great Migration. The essence of Black Southern food slowly disappeared. And with those faded connections came a hazy idea of Black Southern food. Black Southern cuisine slowly adapted to Western culture, and the separation from the ways of agriculture, fishing, and hunting was met with bustling urban cities.

The Health Crisis in Black Communities

Bruce said the health issues plaguing the Black community are more of a larger societal problem than equating soul food as the problem.

“Today, there are other factors that contribute to obesity, high cholesterol, and hypertension,” he said. “Lack of affordable grocery stores, poor dieting, and lack of exercise are just a few challenges to address.”

According to an American Heart Association report, African Americans live shorter lives due to cardiac issues. These issues were attributed to stress and poor dieting that leaned heavily toward greasy foods.

“If you don’t live near a full-service grocery store and you go to the corner market, it might not have the refrigeration or proper storage, and so you’re paying for a product that may not last,” said Dr. Bettina Beech, chief population health officer at the University of Houston. “The easiest thing to do is to buy cheaper items that lack nutritional value.”

Beech also highlights often overlooked factors in health disparities discussions.

“There is the mindfulness piece. Are people stressed when we’re coming to the table? All of that plays a big role in metabolism,” she said. “How we feel about food and how we control our behavior is a factor, as well.”

Enjoy Healthier Alternatives

African Heritage Diet programs are sweeping the nation, empowering Black communities to embrace their culinary heritage. These initiatives go beyond education, offering cooking classes and resources to facilitate a transition to healthier eating habits while celebrating the cultural significance of food.

Abundant vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, and lean proteins characterize this dietary approach. It consciously minimizes processed foods, added sugars, and unhealthy fats, aligning with key recommendations for a balanced, heart-healthy diet.

Veganism has taken center stage in Black Southern Cuisine. Pew Research Center survey shows that eight percent of Black Americans identify as strict vegans or vegetarians, compared to just three percent of the general population. This shift towards vegan diets within the Black community is not merely a dietary choice but a cultural alignment with traditional soul food, incorporating foods and cooking techniques rooted in African-American cultures and traditions.

Houston has more than 20 vegan restaurants. As individuals redefine their dietary preferences, more Black-owned vegan establishments, from restaurants to food trucks, are emerging. These enterprises are reshaping perceptions of vegan food while providing consumers with various healthy dishes good enough to make the cut this Thanksgiving.

“When we talk about diets, it sounds restrictive. The first thing I think about is what I can’t have,” Beech said. “It’s about lifestyle change. How we talk about nutrition and ways of medication can have a big impact on our mental wellbeing and how we approach our level of receptivity for making the kinds of changes needed.”

Tips to make your cuisine healthier:

Make It Lean: Choose leaner cuts of meat and skinless chicken. Trim the fat off meat and opt for healthier cooking methods like baking, broiling, or grilling instead of frying.

Color Your Plate: Opt for a variety of colorful fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains to ensure a diverse nutrient intake.

Go Easy On The Extras: Limit high-calorie sides and drinks traditionally served with soul food. Consider alternatives like a side salad or roasted vegetables instead of biscuits and gravy,

Season With Natural Herbs And Spices: Use natural herbs and spices like basil, oregano, black pepper, cumin, ginger, and turmeric to add flavor without excessive sodium.

Limit Portion Sizes: Practice portion control by using smaller plates and bowls. Drink water before meals, eat slowly and mindfully, wait 10 minutes before seconds, and avoid buffet-style meals

I cover Houston's education system as it relates to the Black community for the Defender as a Report for America corps member. I'm a multimedia journalist and have reported on social, cultural, lifestyle,...