How to Create a Healthy Soul Food Plate — Guide and Recipes

Soul food is the traditional cuisine of African Americans (1).

Sometimes referred to simply as “Southern food,” soul food was transported to the North and the rest of the United States by African Americans leaving the South during the Great Migration of the early to the mid-20th century.

Dishes range from simple family meals of rice and beans, fried chicken, and ham collards to tables filled with candied sweet potatoes, smothered pork chops, okra, black-eyed peas, macaroni and cheese, cornbread, sweet potato pie, and peaches. shoemaker.

Soul food is an integral part of Black food culture and often evokes strong feelings of home, family, and togetherness.

This article explains the basics of soul food, explores whether it’s healthy, and provides simple tips for boosting the nutrition of soul food meals.

Is soul food healthy?

Often associated with soul food, the Southern diet includes organ meats, processed meats, eggs, fried foods, added fats, and sugary drinks.

This eating pattern is linked to an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, kidney disease, cancer, stroke, and mental decline (2, 3).

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), African Americans ages 18 to 49 are twice as likely to die from heart disease than white Americans. Black Americans aged 35-54 are also 50% more likely to have high blood pressure than white Americans (4).

While social and economic inequalities play an important role in these disproportionate rates of disease, dietary choices can also contribute.

But that doesn’t mean all soul foods are unhealthy. Nutrient-rich meals and leafy greens are also staples of soul food.

Many items commonly associated with spiritual food are linked to an increased risk of many diseases, including heart disease. But food for the soul can be made much healthier by emphasizing the nutritious dishes of tradition.

A guide to sustaining a food culture while promoting health

Soul food embodies countless heritages, traditions, and practices that have been passed down from generation to generation.

Creating a healthier soul food dish doesn’t mean abandoning this rich heritage.

In fact, making small changes to recipes and cooking methods can help increase the nutrient profiles of dishes while preserving flavor, richness, and cultural traditions.

Choose more plant-based foods

Traditional African diets are plant-based and include a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, such as leafy greens, okra, watermelon, whole grains, and black-eyed peas (5, 6).

In traditional societies, meat was eaten – when consumed at all – in very small quantities and usually as a spice (7).

Diets that include plenty of plant foods are associated with more moderate body weights and a lower risk of disease (5).

Also, a meta-analysis of people who ate leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables such as kale, collards, turnips, and cabbage showed a 15.8% reduced risk of heart disease compared to the control group (8).

Tips for increasing your herbal food intake

  • Make sure that half of your plate consists of non-starchy vegetables such as greens, eggplant, okra, carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers, and turnips.
  • Replace meat with legumes, nuts, or seeds as your main protein source. Examples of these plant foods include lentils, beans, peanuts, and black-eyed peas.
  • Diversify your diet by eating roots and tubers such as sweet potatoes, taro, bananas, and pumpkins.
  • Snack on raw vegetables, nuts, and seeds instead of high-fat, high-sugar options like chips and cookies.
  • Aim for at least two colorful plant-based foods on every plate—for example, collard greens and roasted pumpkin, or an apple with a handful of nuts.

Choose whole grains

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends that people make at least half of the grains they eat whole grains (9).

Whole grains are the whole grain, including the bran, germ, and endosperm. They may play a role in weight management, gut health, and prevention of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and even colorectal, pancreatic, and stomach cancers (10).

Examples of whole grains are whole wheat, brown rice, oats, sorghum, millet, fonio, and barley.

Some soul foods, such as macaroni and cheese, cornbread, and rice dishes, are made from refined grains that have had their nutrient-dense bran and germ removed during processing and are therefore not as nutritious as their whole-grain counterparts.

Tips for enjoying more whole grains

  • Replace refined grains with their whole-grain counterparts. For example, choose whole wheat flour instead of white flour or whole-grain cornflour instead of specified.
  • Instead of white rice, use brown rice, sorghum, millet, or fonio.
  • When baking, replace refined flour with whole grain flours such as teff, whole wheat, and sorghum flours.
  • Choose packaged foods where whole grains are the first or second item in the ingredient list.

Flavor with vegetables, herbs, and spices

In addition to containing high-sodium processed meats such as ham, gravy foods often use seasoned salt, garlic salt, and cajun seasoning. These foods and spices contribute to the total amount of sodium you consume.

Excess sodium intake is associated with an increased risk of high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease, and premature death (11, 12).

Evidence suggests that African Americans are more susceptible to the blood-pressure-lowering effects of reduced salt intake. Reducing your dietary sodium intake can result in a 4-8 mmHg reduction in systolic blood pressure — the highest number in the reading (11).

Seasoning foods with aromatic vegetables like onions, garlic, and celery, as well as herbs and spices, not only reduce their sodium content but also increase their antioxidant content and flavor (13).

Tips for replacing salt

  • Experiment with bold, low-sodium seasonings like Ethiopian Berber or Tunisian harissa.
  • Use herbs and spices instead of salt. Add fresh herbs towards the end of cooking and dry herbs at the beginning.
  • Buy fresh, frozen, or unsalted canned vegetables, or rinse high-sodium canned vegetables before using them.
  • Avoid salting your food at the table, especially before you taste it.
  • Make your own spice mix by mixing:
    • 2 tablespoons (14 grams) of black pepper
    • 1 tablespoon (5.5 grams) of cayenne pepper
    • 1 tablespoon (7 grams) of paprika
    • 1 tablespoon (6 grams) of onion powder
    • 1 tablespoon (10 grams) of garlic powder
    • 1 ground bay leaf

Change your cooking methods

Cooking methods affect both the nutritional composition of the food and the risk of disease.

Observational studies in postmenopausal women link fried foods, such as fried chicken, fried fish, and chips, to a higher risk of all-cause and heart-related death (14).

High-temperature cooking methods such as frying, baking, roasting, and grilling can release chemicals such as acrylamide heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) (15, 16, 17).

HCAs and PAHs are associated with an increased risk of cancer. They may also increase the risk of diabetes (17, 18).

While boiling and broiling are healthy alternatives for cooking meats, grains, and vegetables, they can result in a loss of nutrients such as vitamin C, lutein, and beta carotene ( 19).

If you choose to boil or boil it, you can still reap some of the lost nutrients by adding the nutrient-rich liquid (or potting) to other dishes.

Tips for healthy cooking methods

  • Cut off visible fat and remove charred portions of food before eating.
  • When cooking starchy foods, aim for a golden brown color rather than a dark brown color or overly crispy exterior.
  • Marinate the meat with citrus or juices, vinegar or onions, herbs, and seasonings.
  • Steam, sauté, stir-fry, or boil vegetables instead of frying them.
  • If you boil vegetables, use nutrient-rich, leftover potlikker as a sauce or dipping sauce for cornbread. You can also add this liquid to other dishes.
  • Pre-cook meats in the microwave and finish on the grill.
  • Empty the fryer and recreate favorite recipes by roasting them in the oven or using a deep fryer.
  • If you need to deep fry food, choose an oil with a high smoke point, such as canola, peanut, or avocado oil.

Make healthy trades

Altering recipes by replacing high-fat, high-calorie, high-sodium options with healthier ingredients is an effective way to honor family traditions without sacrificing flavor.

Simple swap ideas

  • Choose heart-healthy fats like olive, peanut, or canola oils instead of solid fats like lard, which are high in saturated fat.
  • Opt for low-fat cheese and low-fat or skim milk instead of full-fat cheeses and milk.
  • Replace high-sodium, high-fat meats with smoked, skinless turkey breast in greens and other dishes.
  • Pour the marshmallows or brown sugar over the yams for cinnamon, vanilla, or some orange juice.
  • Marinate meats and poultry with herbs and spices rather than drowning them in the sauce.
  • Lighten up the mayonnaise by mixing half with plain nonfat Greek yogurt.
  • Use lard or butter in baked desserts with fruit purees like applesauce.

Food is deeply intertwined with celebration, family, emotion, heritage, and identity.

Occasionally allow yourself to enjoy your favorite food.

Be mindful of your portion sizes when you have more than one favorite dish. A good rule of thumb is to make half your plate non-starchy vegetables, a quarter of your plate starch, and the last quarter of your plate protein sources.

You can increase the nutritional content of soul foods by choosing nutrient-rich meals, replacing unhealthy ingredients with healthy ones, choosing cooking methods other than frying, reducing salt, and eating more whole grains and plant foods.

Recipes to try

If you’re interested in diversifying your soul food plate, check out this recipe booklet from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). It includes heart-healthy recipes for a veggie casserole, chicken okra, smothered greens, cornbread, sweet potato pie, macaroni and cheese, and more.

Final Thoughts

Traditional African American cuisine, also called soul food, embodies numerous cultural heritages and is known to be rich and delicious.

While some soul food items are high in fat, sodium, and added sugar, many other meals are packed with nutrient-dense foods like leafy greens and legumes. Therefore, it’s easy to make a nutritious soul food dish by focusing more on some dishes than others.

Plus, adjusting your cooking methods and making ingredient changes can make your favorite soul food healthier.

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