Rich and Healthy Foods for a Traditional Soul Food Dinner

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.

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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)
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  • Southern Living. "Lucky New Year's Meal." (Oct. 5, 2012)