Rich and Healthy Foods for a Traditional Soul Food Dinner

Fried chicken and waffles is a delicious indulgence, but there are better nutritional choices when it comes to soul food.
Fried chicken and waffles is a delicious indulgence, but there are better nutritional choices when it comes to soul food.

Let your mind wander to your favorite soul foods. Chicken and waffles. Barbecued ribs. Macaroni and cheese. Catfish, chicken livers, sweet potato pie.

Soul food is an ethnic cuisine that's part of our American Southern food tradition, brought to the United States through the slave trade and passed down through generations of African-American families. Its heart is in the food traditions of Africa, the Caribbean and South America.


The term "soul food" may not have originated until the civil rights movement of the1960s, but some foods on soul food menus have roots that go back hundreds of years -- or at least their inspiration does. You'll find a traditional soul food menu offers everything from oxtail soup, chitterlings (also called chitlins) and boiled pigs feet to collard greens and ham hocks, black-eyed peas, corn bread and cracklin' bread. Swallow it down with some sweet tea and finish it off with a slice of chess pie.

While this style of food varies from region to region, with shrimp and seafood making appearances in recipes in coastal areas, the common thread in soul food is that these dishes were created with what was around and available, usually offal and other leftover and unwanted animal parts (for example, chitterlings are a pig's small intestine that's been cleaned, soaked and boiled or fried) and weeds (for example, beet greens). Soul foods are often fried or slow cooked, prepared those ways to help tenderize otherwise difficult-to-work-with ingredients. Sauces, sides and main dishes are often flush with salt and sugar as a way to boost flavors.

Soul food traditions and recipes have been passed along in African-American families in the U.S. since the time of slavery, through stories, experience and sometimes recipe cards, but cooking family recipes and eating soul food doesn't have to mean sacrificing your health. What does health have to do with it? A lot -- every time you enjoy a deep-fried turkey wing you're increasing your odds of developing some serious and chronic health problems. Let's figure out what those health risks are, next, and then how to enjoy a rich but healthy soul food meal instead.


Soul Food: Health Risk?

The foods we associate with traditional soul food spreads are also usually associated with heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity and other chronic diseases. Many dishes are cooked with lard or other saturated fats, but despite this, soul food doesn't have to be unhealthy food.

Today, soul food is comfort food to many Americans -- it's the food we grew up with in our homes. And much like other types of comfort foods, many of our favorites are not the best for health. Unfortunately, African-Americans are more likely to be unhealthy and suffer premature death than Caucasian Americans.


African-Americans are also more likely to develop diabetes -- a chronic disease that raises your risk of nerve damage, kidney disease, heart disease and stroke as well as your risk of losing your eyesight or losing a limb. Almost 15 percent (3.7 million) of African-Americans have been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, a higher incidence than for whites or Hispanics living in the U.S. [source: CDC, American Diabetes Association]. The African- American community also has higher rates of hypertension and obesity.

One way to approach a soul food supper more healthfully while still serving traditional soul foods is with the Oldways African Heritage Diet. The African Heritage Diet is a way of eating based on those comforting soul foods we all love, but with a focus on the healthier side of soul food eating. The African Heritage Diet Pyramid is put together by not only health and nutrition experts but also by culinary historians -- culinary tradition is important here, tradition that comes from not only the American Deep South but from Africa, South America and the Caribbean as well -- traditions from times before the African diaspora and the slave trade that began in the 15th century..


Healthier Soul Foods and the Oldways African Heritage Diet

Millet-based dishes are a vital part of the African Heritage Diet.
Millet-based dishes are a vital part of the African Heritage Diet.

The African Heritage Diet food pyramid includes what you might expect in a food pyramid: meats, beans, vegetables and fruits. But the bottom layer of this food pyramid is reserved for greens -- dark, leafy greens including beet, chard, collard, dandelion and mustard greens. Kale, spinach and watercress are all also commonly found in the African Heritage Diet. Greens are eaten with every meal. Above greens on the pyramid you'll find vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes, beans, peas, tubers and whole grains -- the foods that dishes in the heritage diet are built around. This level includes whole foods and grains such as eggplant, papaya, peanuts, yams, millet, sorghum and teff -- a cereal grass native to Ethiopia. Fresh herbs, spices, hot sauces and marinades, fish and seafood, healthy oils, eggs, other meats and dairy get more limited as the pyramid tip narrows, with sweets at the top as an occasional treat. This isn't a plant-based diet, but the emphasis is on healthy preparations of animal products.

What you won't find in the African Heritage Diet is fried chicken. This diet is about healthy eating, which includes baking chicken, but does not include those unhealthy frying fats. You'll eat shrimp gumbo and okra with peanuts, though, as well as collard greens and one-pot meals from your slow cooker.


If you just want to clean up a few of your own recipes, we have a few places to begin. Many of the ingredients common to soul food dishes are not unhealthy foods. For example, peanuts are a good source of B vitamins and protein. Teff, millet and brown rice are all good-for-you whole grains. But it's what we do to these foods before we eat them that doesn't do us any good.

Let's talk about fats. Instead of cooking foods in lard and other shortening or saturated fats (including butter) lighten them up by substituting a healthier type of fat such as canola, olive or sesame oil. Collards and kale are packed full of vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants but become unhealthy when cooked in fatback -- use chicken or vegetable stock instead, and substitute smoked turkey to give your greens a smoky note. Have a heavy hand with herbs but only a pinch when it comes to salt. This soul food is about keeping the comfort of a Sunday supper as well as your health.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

More Great Links

  • African American Registry. "'Soul Food' A Brief History!" (Oct. 5, 2012)
  • Ahala, Khaalisha. "How Soul Food Stymies African-Americans' Low-Salt Efforts." ABC Good Morning America. 2012. (Oct. 5, 2012)
  • American College of Cardiology. CardioSmart. "Healthy Eating: Ethnic Foods." 2011. (Oct. 5, 2012)
  • American Diabetes Association. "Living With Diabetes - African Americans & Complications." (Oct. 5, 2012)
  • Barclay, Eliza. "How Soul Food Can Be Good For Your Health." The Salt - NPR's Food Blog. 2011. (Oct. 5, 2012)
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. Reach U.S. Finding Solutions to Health Disparities: At A Glance 2010." 2010. (Oct. 5, 2012)
  • Cumberbatch Anderson, Jessica. "African Heritage Food Pyramid Creator Oldways Organizes Cooking Classes Nationwide (RECIPE)." The Huffington Post: Black Voices Sunday Magazine. 2012. (Oct. 5, 2012)
  • D'Addono, Beth. "African-American influence in food is more than just taste." The Philadelphia Inquirer. 2011. (Oct. 5, 2012)
  • Gabriel, Larry. "Body vs soul food." Metro Times. 2012. (Oct. 5, 2012)
  • Oldways - Health Through Heritage. "African Heritage Diet & Pyramid." (Oct. 5, 2012)
  • Schenectady County Community College. Begley Library. Örigins of Soul Food." (Oct. 5, 2012)
  • Soul Food and Southern Cooking. (Oct. 5, 2012)
  • Southern Living. "Lucky New Year's Meal." (Oct. 5, 2012)