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

Soul food is the traditional cuisine of African Americans.

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

Meals range from simple family dinners of rice and beans, fried chicken, and collard greens with ham hocks to tables loaded with candied yams, smothered pork chops, gumbo, black-eyed peas, macaroni and cheese, cornbread, sweet potato pie, and peach cobbler.

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 to boost the nutrition of soul food dishes.

Is soul food healthy?

The Southern diet, which is often associated with soul food, contains organ meats, processed meats, eggs, fried foods, added fats, and sweetened beverages.

This eating pattern is tied to an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, kidney disease, cancer, stroke, and mental decline.

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

While social and economic disparities play a significant role in these disproportionate disease rates, dietary choices may also contribute.

However, this doesn’t mean that all soul food is unhealthy. Nutrient-rich dishes and leafy green vegetables are also staples of soul food.

A guide to maintaining food culture while promoting health

Soul food embodies numerous legacies, traditions, and practices passed down from generation to generation.

Creating a healthier soul food plate does not mean abandoning this rich heritage.

In fact, making small modifications to recipes and cooking methods may help boost dishes’ nutrient profiles while maintaining flavor, richness, and cultural traditions.

Choose more plant-based foods

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

In traditional societies, meat — when consumed at all — was eaten in very small quantities and often as a seasoning.

Diets that include plenty of plant foods are associated with more moderate body weights and decreased disease risk.

Furthermore, a meta-analysis in people who ate leafy green and cruciferous vegetables, such as collard greens, kale, turnip greens, and cabbage, indicated a 15.8% reduced risk of heart disease, compared with a control group..

Favor whole grains

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

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

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

Some soul food entrées like macaroni and cheese, cornbread, and rice dishes are made from refined grains, which have had their nutrient-dense bran and germ removed during processing and are thus not as nutritious as their whole grain counterparts.

Season with veggies, herbs, and spices

In addition to containing high sodium processed meats like ham hocks, soul food often uses seasoned salt, garlic salt, and cajun seasoning. These foods and spices contribute to the overall amount of sodium you consume.

Excessive sodium intake is associated with an increased risk of high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease, and premature death.

Evidence suggests that African Americans are more sensitive to the blood-pressure-lowering effects of decreased salt intake. Reducing your dietary sodium intake may result in a 4–8 mmHg reduction in systolic blood pressure — the top number on a reading.

Seasoning foods with aromatic veggies like onions, garlic, and celery, as well as herbs and spices, not only reduces sodium content but also boosts the antioxidant content and flavor.

Change your cooking methods

Cooking methods affect both the nutrient composition of a meal and disease risk.

Observational studies in postmenopausal women associate fried foods like fried chicken, fried fish, and fried potatoes with a higher risk of all-cause and heart-related mortality.

High heat cooking methods, such as frying, baking, roasting, and grilling, may introduce chemicals like acrylamide heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).

HCAs and PAHs are associated with an increased risk of cancer. They may also increase diabetes risk .

While boiling and stewing are healthy alternatives for cooking meats, grains, and vegetables, they may result in a loss of nutrients like vitamin C, lutein, and beta carotene.

If you opt for boiling or stewing, you can still glean some of the lost nutrients by adding the nutrient-rich liquid — or potlikker — into other dishes.

Make healthy swaps

Modifying recipes by substituting healthier ingredients for high fat, high calorie, high sodium options is an effective way to honor family traditions without giving up on flavor.

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

On occasion, give yourself permission to enjoy your favorite dishes.

In situations with multiple favorite dishes, watch your portion sizes. A good rule of thumb is to make non-starchy veggies half of your plate, starches a quarter of your plate, and protein sources the last quarter of your plate.

The bottom line

Traditional African American cuisine, also called soul food, embodies numerous cultural legacies and is known for being rich and flavorful.

While certain soul food items are high in fat, sodium, and added sugar, numerous other dishes are packed with nutrient-dense foods like leafy greens and legumes. Thus, it’s easy to make a nourishing soul food plate by focusing on certain dishes over others.

Furthermore, adjusting your cooking methods and making ingredient swaps can make your favorite soul food dishes all the healthier.

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