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Southern Discomfort: Restoring the Nutritional Value of Soul Food Cooking

The Journal of the American Medical Association announced this year that much of the Southern cuisine that has become regular meals in African-American households have lost much of its nutritional vigor — through its overconsumption and methods of preparation. Whether it’s pulled pork or fried chicken, granny’s celebrated macaroni and cheese or a favored cousin’s banana pudding, Southern comfort and found in classic dishes have created generational gaps in nutrition, as well as avoidable (but critical) conditions, such as hypertension and diabetes.

In fact, JAMA’s research found that even as other groups take easily to Southern foods, their occasional intake, coupled with an overall healthy lifestyle has kept them from developing these same nutritional gaps and chronic conditions.

Researchers from the University of Alabama at Birmingham crunched data collected from nearly 7,000 men and women older than 45 living across the U.S. — not just in the South — over the course of a decade. Their goal: to figure out why Black Americans are at greater risk for high blood pressure.

Over the course of the study, 46 percent of Black participants and 33 percent of white participants developed hypertension — and diet seemed to explain much of the disparity. Black participants were much more likely to eat a Southern-style diet regularly, which featured fried foods, organ meats and processed meats, dairy, sugar-sweetened beverages and bread. And this diet was more strongly correlated with hypertension than any other factor the researchers measured, including participants’ levels of stress and depression, exercise habits, income or education level.

Thomas LaVeist, a dean and professor of health policy and management at Tulane University, believes unraveling the connections between soul food consumption and disease requires a larger understanding of African American foodways, including the spiritual, cultural, and community aspects of daily life.

“The traditional African-American Southern diet was really designed for survival as African-Americans were not able to access a balanced, nutritious diet during slavery and during Jim Crow. What they had was organ meats and parts of slaughtered animals that others didn’t eat, and greens they grew themselves,” LaVeist told National Public Radio (NPR). “And what they did is take those scraps and turn it into what’s now an internationally renowned cuisine. But the thing to realize is the food that once helped sustain African-Americans through a truly insane period of history isn’t well-adapted to the food environment today, or the health challenges of today.”

Southeast resident and former chef, Samuel Major, told the Informer that while growing up in Columbia, S.C., most Black families enjoyed the bounty of Southern or soul food only once or twice a year. The daily diet consisted of fresh fruits and vegetables grown from their gardens, unsalted nuts, grains, beans, and protein from fish or an occasional rabbit or chicken.

“The food gets a bad reputation now, but it’s really how much and how often we ate it that kept us strong and healthy. You see a joker today eating 15 or 20 fried or barbecue chicken wings with French fries and soda for lunch two or three times a week and that don’t count the other food he’s eating all week,” Major, who turned 91 November 3, said. “When you have to catch, kill, prepare and cook before you eat, you’re happy sometimes to have some fresh okra and tomatoes with a little cornbread.”

The concept of too much of a good thing echoes constantly among older African Americans who hail originally from the South. But stress may also be a culprit in the impact of soul food consumption on Black bodies. For instance, JAMA’s study also revealed the amount of stress that the average Black Americans face in 2018 is at phenomenal levels and impacts the body’s ability to process and metabolize foods — both good and bad.

“If you think about it, stress can, for example, affect how well people sleep, which can lead them to overeat or crave unhealthy food,” said biostatistician Suzanne Judd, also of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, who co-authored the study. “A diet high in fat, salt and sugar would increase the risk of hypertension for anyone, of any race. What does surprise me is how this one particular style of eating explained so much of the difference between the rates of hypertension for Black and white participants.

And then there’s also the possibility that the food reveals something about the social history of those who eat it.”

Mr. Major concurred.

“Stress can make a good plate of food go bad in your stomach, that’s true. But also, Booker T. Washington said that a man or woman who has no control over the soil cannot sustain themselves or their bodies and that’s what we’re seeing today, so I grow my own food,” Major said, making a point to show off that he still has all of his teeth, clear vision, and a clean bill of health. “We have to put soul food in its place — which is an occasional treat, not every day eating. As a people, we have to eat what’s good to our bodies, not just to our tongues.”

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