Soul Food and Healing Through Eating

Soul Food and Healing Through Eating

Cardiovascular diseases, high blood pressure, and diabetes are common within our community. Many of us have close family members or have a family history riddled with these problems. Obesity is also fairly common. This, however, has to be taken with a grain of salt. The way the medical industry defines obesity is not inclusive of various genetic builds. To put it bluntly, black and brown bodies are not closely studied and are often incorrectly diagnosed due to this. Health cannot only be dictated by weight for these reasons. Why does our community struggle with health? Soul Food and other food choices are huge factors.

Slavery food vs Soul food? There is NO difference.

“Soul Food” dates back to slavery times. Our ancestors were forced to endure inhumane, traumatizing conditions in order to survive. They were often malnourished and given literal scraps to eat. Slaves were given the parts of animals that slaveowners wouldn’t eat. They were also given rotting food. The way to combat this was heavy seasoning, lots of fats, and finding creative ways to make enjoyable food. This method of cooking was passed down from generation to generation. Dishes became like family heirlooms. The way our community approaches food was shaped by the need to survive. Living conditions can be a large factor as well.

Soul food is one of the root causes of unhealthy eating in the Black community.  It tends to be greasy, fatty, or have a high salt content. The overall struggle of eating healthy in Black communities is because of our cultural standards of seasoning food, poverty, and not knowing the importance of what we put in our bodies.

Soul food tends to be greasy, fatty, or high in salt content.

Though we may be told the basics of nutrition, many of us are not taught to prioritize our health. If you live in an area that only has corner stores and stores with little-to-none fresh produce, you’re likely in a food desert. Food deserts affect people of color (especially Black people) and further unhealthy food choices. Living in areas where there is poor walkability and public transportation and/or higher poverty levels increases the chance of finding yourself in a food desert. In New York City, for example, many people live in areas where their local convenience store serves as their grocery store. The nearest grocery store that sells nutritional food, and fresh produce, and caters to a variety of special needs diets takes an hour one-way commute.

Naturally, someone would likely order food, eat local street food, and frequent their favorite bodega daily. A food desert factor that you may not have considered is time. Many people in these areas work long hours and struggle to find the time to commute to and from the grocery store. When they manage to get to a store with healthy, diverse options, they find that it’s significantly more expensive. This is a complicated, nuanced issue.

There are some people within these communities that have seen the value and need for nutritional food.

They have started collectives that allow for community gardens, farmers’ markets, opening health-centered restaurants, and brick-and-mortar grocery stores. If you live in an area like this, you can look up local community food initiatives. You may find groups of people who are actively working for better food access in your area. Try to support any local events or businesses that align with a healthier lifestyle. They don’t have the money of a big chain corporation, they require community support to stay functioning.

Our ancestors gained freedom but generations continued to eat the same.

Food deserts aside, let’s talk about what we’ve learned from our elders and pass to our children. We’re creatures of habit. Recipes are passed down for years and coveted by families. If it’s soul food, it likely contains lots of fats and sugars. We’re taught to season food like we season soul food. Repeated exposure to these high levels of fats and sugars can cause health problems such as high blood pressure. Some people are unable to commit to changing their diet and lifestyle after being diagnosed. This leads to further sickness and even death. We’ve been taught to accept that our family members will eventually get these issues. It’s become that normalized.

Black Americans are not taught to value nutritional health as much as other groups.

Due to the oppression that generations have faced, we’ve been in survival mode. We take what we can get so we stay alive. We make the best of what we have by adding our natural flare. If both parents had to work full-time in order to keep a roof over their family’s heads and food on the table, they had to cut corners.

They may have bought premade food (frozen or refrigerated) or prepackaged, quick-to-cook foods. Think about the premixed rice packets that you add vegetables and meat to it. Look at the sodium and how small the serving sizes are next time you’re in the store. Instant ramen is also another example of this. Frozen foods and premade foods also are higher in sodium and bad for cholesterol. Eating these foods sprinkled in with the occasional homecooked meal is the norm for many people within our community. Oftentimes, the home-cooked meal is soul food or soul food adjacent.

We lean towards convenience to save time and “money.”

If you’re pressed for time and have a lot of things to do, you’ll go for what seems the easiest. You see frozen meals and snacks discounted with a deal at the grocery store. 5 meals for $15. You grab enough to get the deal and look at the next shelf. Frozen breakfast sandwiches are 2 for $3.50. It becomes an easy choice to grab convenient food. You likely believe that it’ll be significantly cheaper than grabbing fresh produce and making your food from scrap. You also don’t feel like spending hours in the kitchen. You leave the grocery store feeling satisfied.

In reality, if your grocery store has decent fresh produce then you can likely save money buying ingredients instead of premade. If you preplan your meals you can ensure that you’ll use all the fresh produce you purchase. This reduces food waste and takes away some of the stress surrounding cooking. There are many meals that are quick and easy to make. To make things better, most of the food you make you can freeze yourself. If you make a large pot of soup, you can use silicone molds to freeze it in serving sizes. You can get creative in the ways that you prepare and store your food.

The next step to healthier food choices is choosing what to make and when to make it.

There’s nothing wrong with enjoying soul food in moderation. Having it during holidays or on special occasions is perfectly fine. There is often an issue of moderation when it comes to soul food. Eating it frequently increases your chances of disease. As mentioned above, the seasoning methods used in soul food transfer over to everyday cooking. Many home chefs began learning from their elders. They spent time watching the ones who cooked for their families and took in their advice. This leads to excessive use of butter, oils, fats, and sugars when cooking everyday meals. We need these things to function, but overusing them can be dangerous.

We stop this cycle by doing research. We need to learn about what true nutrition entails. Not just anecdotes we heard or an arbitrary food pyramid. It’s important we educate ourselves about what our body needs. You’ll be able to make healthier selections that work with your lifestyle. Start incorporating fresh vegetables and fruits into your every day. If you’re craving a soul food dish, research a healthier version of it. There are many recipes out there that show you ways to reduce the sodium or fat in a dish. You can always enjoy the original dish on special occasions. The importance is that you begin to make purposeful, deliberate choices on an everyday basis. 

How to change our lifestyle.

Adjusting your life can be difficult if you don’t have the right resources. Many Black Americans may find it difficult to make changes so they can afford healthier food. As mentioned above, learning about nutrition can help this. As a result, you’ll better know what to look for instead of being lured by pretty, vague labels. Do the research and choose to follow science-based suggestions. Look at your bank statements if finances are a concern. You may find areas that you can reduce your spending on to make room in your budget. We understand that not everyone does not have the same accessibility. It may be incredibly difficult to get change your grocery budget. If possible, try to dedicate a few items that can improve your diet. Small changes can make monumental changes.

Shift your mindset about healthy food.

Because of how our communities have struggled for generations, we are susceptible to a warped mindset. Some of us are taught to prioritize certain material items over our own physical health. “If you look good, you’re doing good,” is a belief many of us hold. We were taught that we had to present ourselves in a certain way for acceptance. Showing off your wealth is a quick way to establish your worth. This is true for most communities. It’s especially impactful in communities that are historically poverty-stricken. This is all to say that sometimes we may spend money on the latest technology, a home that’s beyond our means, or labeled clothing while having an empty refrigerator.

Cutting back on unnecessary costs like these to allot for healthier eating choices can save your life. We only get one body. Investing in it means eating well, exercising, and taking care of ourselves. For generations, our worth was equated to how much work we can put in. Our value was labor. Our bodies needed just enough to run throughout their “prime years.” It didn’t matter to society if they lost function as we aged because there was a new generation to exploit. We recommend you look into the benefits of changing your diet. Research how it can be a preventative to a lot of the diseases that we’ve come to accept.

Ask yourself…

What could happen if we took a straightforward approach to how we’re living?

What if there was a resource that has the ability to change your mindset about how you treat your body when it comes to overall wellness?

Could our community become responsible for ourselves and inspire our family and friends to do the same?

What can you do today to begin to improve your relationship with food? 

We heal and improve long-term when it’s driven by a mindset shift. Not just to “fix” something like high blood pressure. We deserve to have longer life expectancies. The internet has begun to level the playing field for us. We’re able to look up tasty recipes that have more benefits than downfalls with a few taps on our phones. We’re also able to learn about nutrition for FREE. We even have the option of finding nutritionists and dietitians that take the Black experience into consideration. We recently recorded a podcast with a Black, registered dietician, Dr. Loneke Blackman Carr, where we discuss some of the many issues our community faces when it comes to healthy eating. 

Slavery food doesn’t need to keep hurting our community. We can learn how to modify our diets so we can live longer, healthier lives

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