African American Culinary Heritage: Food for Life

The second-leading cause of death in African Americans is cancer. Research shows that more than one-third of all cancer deaths in the United States are due to poor diet, yet most are unaware of the connection.

The Food for Life: African American Culinary Heritage curriculum is a plant-based nutrition and cooking program developed by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. The intended audience for this series is African Americans who are looking to prevent or overcome lifestyle-related chronic diseases. It is also designed for individuals seeking to explore plant-based versions of dishes commonly found on African American dining tables.

IN THE NEWS: Instructor Tammy Robertson talks about plant-based health and the African American Culinary Heritage program

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Blacks/African Americans are the second largest minority population in the United States, representing more than 12% of the total population. Younger African Americans are living with or dying of many conditions typically found in white Americans at older ages. The difference shows up in African Americans in their 20s, 30s, and 40s for diseases and causes of death. When diseases start early, they can lead to death earlier. Chronic diseases and some of their risk factors may be silent or not diagnosed during these early years.

 

The leading cause of death among African Americans is heart disease. Among African Americans over the age of 20, 57.5% have hypertension. Hypertension is a condition in which the force of the blood against the artery walls is too high. Over time, if untreated, it can cause health conditions, such as heart disease and stroke. African Americans ages 18-49 are twice as likely to die from heart disease and 50% more likely to die of stroke than whites. Heart disease is, however, one of the easiest diseases to treat and prevent through diet.

 

The second-leading cause of death in African Americans is cancer. Research shows that more than one-third of all cancer deaths in the United States are due to poor diet, yet most are unaware of the connection.

Diabetes is a major public health problem of epidemic proportions in the United States. More than 12% of the adult population in the United States has diabetes, and more than one-quarter of the population over 65 has the disease. African American adults are 60% more likely than non-Hispanic white adults to be diagnosed with diabetes by a physician. Uncontrolled diabetes can lead to complications from head to toe, including stroke, loss of vision, heart disease, kidney failure, and various problems due to nerve damage and circulatory problems, such as erectile dysfunction or lower-extremity amputation. African Americans are 3.2 times more likely to be diagnosed with end stage renal disease, 2.3 times more likely to be hospitalized for lower limb amputations and twice as likely to die from diabetes than white Americans. Fortunately, type 2 diabetes is largely a disease of overnutrition and sedentary lifestyle. The disease can be prevented, and complications can often be avoided or treated with a significant change in lifestyle.

African Americans are 1.3 times more likely to be obese white Americans. African American women have the highest rates of obesity or being overweight compared to other groups in the United States. Approximately 4 out of 5 African American women are overweight or obese. People who are overweight are more likely to suffer from diabetes, high blood pressure, and high levels of blood fats and LDL cholesterol—all risk factors for heart disease and stroke.

There are multiple socioeconomic factors that can play into these health disparities among African Americans. It’s commonly assumed that chronic diseases are genetic. However, lifestyle factors, like eating a whole foods, plant-based diet, have been shown to prevent and treat many chronic diseases and influence genes.

The culinary heritage of African Americans is rooted in a history of survival and triumph. During periods of migration out of the South descendants of enslaved Africans in America spread their food traditions to many regions in the United States and sparked an evolution in American cuisine. The African American culinary tradition, commonly referred to as “Soul Food” is as broad and diverse as the African American community that gave birth to its rise. Many of the dishes and meals that Americans enjoy today were developed in the pots and pans of those descendants of enslaved Africans. This program will:

  • Celebrate the ancestral ties of West African foodways that were brought to the United States through the Middle Passage and the culinary traditions developed by African Americans throughout their history in the United States

  • Honor the culinary traditions of descendants of enslaved Africans in America and their migration and culinary evolution to regions outside of the South

  • Explore plant-based adaptions of various Soul Food dishes

  • Highlight African American foodways in a way that may illuminate their broader historical

    and regional influences

 

Each class in the series will present a different meal, from breakfast to dinner, and recipes for special culturally connected gatherings.

 

“...A diet option with cultural connections resonates more with African Americans because a meal isn’t just the food on a plate; it’s a whole experience. If you can put an experience around healthful eating... feeling good about your past and bringing it to everyday...that will help make it more of a lifestyle.... then it’s not just a diet it’s a way of life that patients can embrace, sustain, and be proud of.” Angela Ginn, RD, LDN, CDE, Today’s Dietitian, March 2012

This curriculum is intended to inspire and empower healthful eating for the purpose of preventing and arresting chronic disease disproportionately affecting African Americans by connecting to culturally relevant recipes. 

 

Class 1: The Power of Your Plate

The first class in this series will introduce the concepts of plant-based eating for preventing and treating common chronic diseases, including heart disease, overweight and obesity, and diabetes. Discuss keys to successfully change one’s eating patterns to achieve optimal health. Become familiar with The African Heritage Power Plate and explore plant-based meal planning for the week.

Class 2: Foods for a Healthy Heart

Research shows a plant-based diet does not just prevent heart disease, but it can manage and sometimes even reverse it. Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the United States and around the world. Eating habits and other lifestyle factors play a key role in determining the risk of heart disease. Pioneering studies by Dean Ornish, MD, Caldwell Esselstyn Jr., MD, and others have shown a low-fat, plant-based diet, combined with regular exercise and a healthful overall lifestyle, can prevent, delay, and even reverse heart disease and other cardiovascular events.

 

Dr. Ornish’s landmark study tested the effects of a plant-based diet on participants with moderate-to-severe heart disease. There were no surgeries or stents—just simple diet and lifestyle changes. Within weeks, 90% of chest pain diminished. After just one month, blood flow to the heart improved. After a year, even severely blocked arteries reopened. At the Cleveland Clinic, Dr. Esselstyn tested the same approach on patients with severe heart disease and published similar results. Thirty years later, all of the compliant patients are still thriving.

 

Plant-based diets benefit heart health because they contain no dietary cholesterol, very little saturated fat, and abundant fiber. Meat, cheese, and eggs, on the other hand, are packed with cholesterol and saturated fat, which cause plaque buildup in the arteries, eventually leading to heart disease. A plant-based diet can also help improve several risk factors for heart disease:

  • High Blood Pressure: A plant-based diet, rich in potassium, improves blood pressure.

  • High Cholesterol: Aim for high-fiber foods, which can help lower cholesterol.

  • Atherosclerosis: Diets rich in saturated fat and cholesterol cause plaque buildup in the arteries, restricting blood flow.

  • Inflammation: Plant-based diets help reduce inflammation, which can lead to heart disease and other conditions.

Class 3: Intro to How Foods Fight Diabetes

The road to diabetes does not have to be a one-way street. There is reason for hope! People who eat plant-based meals are less likely to ever develop diabetes, and for those who have diabetes, plant-based meals can help to improve blood sugar levels and prevent complications. These meals are affordable and can be quite delicious and satisfying. A low-fat, plant-based approach offers a new tool that many have found to be very useful. Review the latest science behind this approach, consider some simple ideas for getting started, sample four dishes, and explore useful resources.

Class 4: Intro to How Foods Fight Cancer

Certain diet patterns seem to have a major effect in helping people diagnosed with cancer live longer, healthier lives. The National Cancer Institute research shows that as much as 33% of cancer risk may be related to diet. In this class, you will learn about the right food choices that can help reduce the risk of developing cancer as well as prevent a recurrence.

Class 5: Designing a Diet for Maximum Weight Control

This is not a “diet” that asks you to walk around hungry or feel deprived. How can you lose weight, if needed, without skipping meals or limiting your portions? In a word, it’s all about FIBER. Plant foods have it, animal foods do not. Fiber is what makes us feel full, and, as a bonus, it also helps to control blood sugar levels, protects against certain cancers, and, of no small importance, it keeps us “regular.” Learn to comfortably fill up on whole foods and watch the pounds melt away. Enjoy some delicious high-fiber African American dishes.

Class 6: Making It Work for You

As the final class of the series, participate in a send-off celebration or graduation for completing the series. Sticking to a new way of eating can take some planning. In this class, we’ll consider occasions that have the potential to present challenges, whether it is eating at work, during the holidays, or while traveling.

 

Series Menu

Class 1: The Power of Your Plate Breakfast Recipes
Old-Fashioned Creamy Grits 

Breakfast Tofu Scramble

Sunrise Biscuits

Class 2: Food for a Healthy Heart Lunch Recipes
Western Trail Stew
Easy Peach Cobbler

Class 3: Introduction to How Foods Fight Diabetes Sunday Supper Recipes
Braised Collard Greens
Southern Black-Eyed Peas

Toasted Brown Rice Cornbread

Class 4: Introduction to How Foods Fight Cancer Cookout Recipes
Barbecue-Style Portobellos
Potato Salad

Baked Beans

Watermelon-Strawberry Smoothie

Class 5: Designing a Diet for Maximum Weight Control

Mac and Cheese 

Candied Yams 

Purple Cabbage

Class 6: Making It All Work Send-Off Celebration 

Gumbo
Toasted Brown Rice

Vanilla Berry Sorbet 

 

MEET THE INSTRUCTOR

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Tammy Robertson, RN, BSN, lives in Scottsdale, Arizona and has been a nurse for over a decade. She is a member of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine (ACLM), a certified Food for Life instructor with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), and a graduate of the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies with a certification in plant-based nutrition. She is passionate about the power of plants in her own life and for her patients and clients.