Eating an African Heritage Diet: What It Is and How to Do It

Eating an African Heritage Diet: What It Is and How to Do It

Here’s how changing your diet could alter your life, by looking to the past.

The first week of February marks African Heritage and Health Week, annually across the United States.

The celebration makes for a great way to kick off Black History Month, which happens throughout the second month of the year annually and celebrates the achievements and accomplishments of African Americans throughout history.

It’s the perfect time to broaden your knowledge and be inspired. And one of my favorite ways of doing this is through a good meal. But what to eat?

To date, I have a limited, maybe a beginner’s knowledge of African-based culinary delights. I’ve eaten Jamaican jerk and have attended an Ethiopian restaurant once.

To gather more perspective on the issue and information, I decided to interview Jonisha Levi, program manager at Oldways African Heritage & Health Program, based in Boston.

Oldways is a nonprofit food and nutrition education organization, with a mission to inspire healthy eating through cultural food traditions and lifestyles. Here’s what Ms. Levi had to say.

1) Why should Americans change what they’re eating?

Americans are in trouble. More than 1/3 of American adults are obese, 1.5 million people are diagnosed with diabetes every year, and heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women.

On top of that, this country has severe health inequities. African Americans are 1.7 times as likely as their white counterparts to have diabetes. Nearly half have high blood pressure, and they are six times more likely to suffer kidney failure due to this complication than white Americans.

Four out of five African-American women are now obese by BMI standards of 25 or higher. And here’s what many don’t realize: these conditions are all diet-related.

Historically we weren’t eating the processed foods we are eating now… If we turn the clock back a little and starting eating more like our ancestors did, we can better sustain our health.

2) I’m a guinea pig. I’ve never had African heritage food at a restaurant and wish to try it. What can I expect as a first time-eater, and what do you suggest I try?

There’s really something for everyone in African heritage food. We use this phrase to convey foods and dishes of the African diaspora that migrated and evolved as our African ancestors “dispersed” and left continental Africa and ended up in the Caribbean, Latin America, and the American South.

So if you’ve eaten in the American South, you may have tried African heritage food without even knowing it!

As a first-time eater, you can expect a lot of variety. So many dishes are delicious.

Jollof rice is a West African tomato-based rice dish similar to Charleston’s red rice or Louisiana’s jambalaya that many love.

Continental Africa has some great whole grains, such as sorghum, millet, and fonio, which are very versatile and can be eaten as part of breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They’re a common part of sauces and proteins, fritters and porridge.

When it comes to Ethiopian cuisine, you’ll find a rainbow of beans and legumes, including the lentils.

Plantains and cassava are poplar starches, with a potato-like quality when cooked. These guys and yams are often turned into mashes you eat with soups and stews.

And then there are the spices. Wonderful! In terms of heat, you have berbere, cayenne and curry, and when it comes to sweetness, nutmeg, allspice and cinnamon reign.

3) What’s the biggest challenge, in your opinion, for those attempting to switch from the average American diet to the African Heritage Diet? How long does it usually take people to adjust?

I would probably say the biggest challenges are the same as those that all Americans trying to eat healthier face—staying away from refined sugar and sodium, as well as de-centralizing meat on the dinner plate.

Sodium and sugar are huge hurdles because many people aren’t even aware of how much of these are added to various everyday prepared foods and condiments. And your taste buds get use to these things.

Meat is also something that a lot of people, including my father, felt had to be on the plate in a big way for something to be considered “dinner.” But there are so many satisfying plant-based foods that provide our bodies with the fuel they need.

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Beans and rice (or rice and peas), for instance, are eaten all over the diaspora. Today we know this traditional food pairing is actually quite nutritious.

To adjust, six weeks is a good amount of time to get people started on this journey.

After taking our course, 25% of our participants increased their home cooking, 34% increased consumption of leafy greens, and 32% increased weekly plant-based meals and vegetable intake other than greens. Pretty good!

But as with all lifestyle changes, this is a process, and it’s gradual. It doesn’t happen overnight. We do find that heritage is a particularly powerful motivator for change.

4) It’s interesting that greens form the largest category at the bottom of the African Heritage Diet pyramid. Why are they a staple part of the African diet vs grains, which form the biggest staple at the bottom of the American food pyramid, in your opinion?

In formulating the African Heritage Diet Pyramid, our Advisory Board of health professionals and culinary historians decided to make greens the foundation of the Pyramid in recognition of both their nutritional content and their culinary significance in diets of the African diaspora.

Greens are one our healthiest foods; they contain many nutrients and little in the way of calories.

Historically, greens have been central to the continental African cuisine. In West Africa alone, there are 150 kinds of edible greens. As people of African descent dispersed to the Caribbean, Latin America, and the American South, this preference for greens accompanied them and helped to sustain them—in the form of potlikker, for instance.

Related: Fonio: the New Super-Grain That’s Better Than Quinoa

It’s also worth noting that the emphasis on green vegetables is in line with expert recommendations from nutrition professionals around the country.

According to USDA’s MyPlate, which replaced the Food Pyramid in 2011, half of our plates should be filled with fruits and vegetables, like collard greens, while the other half of the plate should be filled with whole grains and protein foods.

5) What are three simple steps a person can take to incorporate more vegetables into their daily diet?

Some easy ways to incorporate new veggies into your diet include: adding vegetables to smoothies for breakfast or a snack, cutting up tubers like sweet potato or cassava into wedges, tossing them with healthy oil, and roasting them to make “fries,” or making a grain bowl with different combinations of both fruits and vegetables, along with a sauce, and protein.

6) Is this diet more practical to follow than a Vegan diet?

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While our curriculum for our six-week A Taste of African Heritage cooking series is essentially vegan (honey is optional), the African Heritage Diet Pyramid does include lean meats and fish in moderation, as well as a minimum of dairy.

For a lot of people, it is difficult to completely give up animal products, and I think you don’t have to give up all meat or dairy to be healthy. It is all about moderation.

7) With the growth of “inner city farms” like these found now in Detroit, is there hope that Americans will eat more natural foods as time passes?

I think there is hope that Americans will eat more natural foods as time passes.

I was recently contacted by West Elmwood Housing Development Corporation’s Sankofa Initiative about holding our classes, which is a similar project in Providence Rhode Island. It includes a community garden and farm, as well as a market where residents can sell their produce and a community kitchen.

I like to think of this as coming full circle to our roots because African ancestors who came to this country brought their tradition of the truck patch or provision ground along with them. This was well before the time of the victory garden.

And it was not just a source of food, but also of medicine. Food as medicine—that’s definitely something we need more of these days!

Photo credits: Monkey Business Images/ Shutterstock.com

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