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Healthy eating through cultural discovery

Two North­eastern pro­fes­sors have col­lab­o­rated to help develop the African Her­itage Diet Pyramid, an approach to healthy eating that focuses on health as well as history.

Pro­fes­sors Bob Hall, a scholar of African Amer­ican studies, and Katherine Tucker, a nutri­tionist and the health sci­ences chair in the Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­ences, helped craft the new pyramid cre­ated by a non­profit orga­ni­za­tion called Old­ways. The orga­ni­za­tion pro­motes healthy eating through a focus on her­itage and culture.

The pyramid, released last month, cen­ters around tra­di­tional African and Caribbean foods rather than what Hall called “inher­ently unhealthy” soul food.

“In my research, I became increas­ingly con­vinced that the food­ways in the source areas of Africa, as well as the Caribbean and North and South America, where many of today’s African-​​Americans descended from, are not in and of them­selves unhealthy,” said Hall, an asso­ciate pro­fessor in the Depart­ment of African Amer­ican Studies whose research includes a focus on the foods that trav­eled with slaves to America. “So we worked to create a plant-​​based diet with rel­a­tively modest amounts of meat, just like you might find in western Africa during the height of the slave trade.”

Blacks in America tend to face greater health chal­lenges than the U.S. pop­u­la­tion as a whole, said Hall and Tucker, who attribute the dis­tinc­tion more to issues of class and eco­nomic inequity than race. Still, a heritage-​​based approach at addressing those under­lying health issues can work, said Old­ways pres­i­dent Sara Baer-​​Sinnot, because tying a new diet to a search for cul­tural under­standing can help a person become more invested in adopting healthier eating habits.

“America is a melting pot of cul­tures, and a lot of experts believe looking back at one’s own cul­ture can be a real moti­vator,” said Baer-​​Sinnot, whose Boston-​​based non­profit has cre­ated sim­ilar pyra­mids for other cul­tural and ethnic groups.

This latest pyramid is based on a foun­da­tion of dark greens, which were a food staple in Africa, with meats and dairy near the top of the pyramid. Veg­eta­bles, whole grains, beans, fruits and tubers are listed as foods that each meal should be based on.

Old­ways plans to work with schools, uni­ver­si­ties, churches, cul­tural groups and health-​​care pro­fes­sionals to pro­mote the new pyramid.

“Right now, the U.S. diet is not very healthy. We have an epi­demic of obe­sity and dia­betes and an excess of heart dis­ease and cancer, and so much of it is due to the refined, highly-​​processed food supply we’re cur­rently using,” Tucker said. “We know it is hard for an indi­vidual to change his or her behavior, and we think that con­necting back to one’s cul­tural roots can be a great way to moti­vate health eating and lifestyles.”

African Her­itage Food Pyramid image cour­tesy Oldways.

by Matt Collette

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