What is Soul Food: A Comprehensive Guide & Nutritional Tips

Soul food is a traditional African American cuisine (1).

It is also known as Southern food. During the Great Migration of the mid-20th century, African Americans departing the South carried the Soul food recipe(s) to the North and other parts of the United States.

Meals that make up the Soul food include basic family dinners such as beans and rice, collard greens, and fried chicken, as well as ham hocks laced with candied yams, gumbo, smothered pork chops, macaroni, black-eyed peas, cornbread, cheese, peach cobbler, and sweet potato pie.

Soul food is a major component of Black food culture. It creates a strong feeling of family, home, and togetherness.

This article discusses the basics of soul food, its nutritional value, and simple tips to enhance its value.

How healthy is soul food?

Soul food is associated with the Southern diet. This diet contains processed meats, organ meats, added fats, sweetened beverages, and fried foods.

A meal consisting of these foods is associated with an increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, cancer, kidney disease, mental decline, and stroke (2, 3).

A report by the Centres for Disease Control (CDC) states that African Americans between the ages of 18 – 49 have a higher risk of dying from heart disease compared to White Americans. Black Americans between 35 – 54 years of age also have a higher risk of developing high blood pressure compared to White Americans (4).

Economic and social disparities are highly involved in these varying disease rates, but there are strong indications that dietary choices may also be involved.

We’re not saying that all soul food is entirely unhealthy. After all, soul food also includes nutrient-rich staples like leafy green vegetables.

A guide to making your soul food more nutritious

Soul food is an embodiment of numerous traditions, legacies, and practices passed across several generations.

That one wants to create a healthier soul food plate does not mean that this rich heritage should be abandoned.

The key to boosting the nutrient profile of soul food dishes is by slightly modifying the cooking methods and recipes. This will boost the nutrient profile and also maintain richness, flavor, and cultural traditions.

Eat plenty of plant-based foods

Most African diets are plant-based. They comprise mainly of vegetables and fruits, including watermelon, leafy greens, whole grains, okra, and black-eyed peas (5, 6).

In the past, meat was usually consumed in small quantities. It was used as a seasoning in most cases. Diets enriched with plant foods are associated with healthy body weight and a decreased risk of disease (5).

A 2016 study published in JRSM Cardiovascular Disease found that people who ate cruciferous vegetables and leafy greens, such as kale, collard greens, cabbage, and turnip greens had their risk of heart disease reduced by 15.8% (7).

Eat more whole grains

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), you must eat more whole grains (8).

By whole grains, we mean the entire grain, including the germ, bran, and endosperm. Whole grain plays an important role in gut health, weight management, prevention of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stomach, pancreatic and colorectal cancers (9).

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

Cheese and macaroni, rice dishes, cornbread, and other soul food entrées are produced from refined grains. Refined grains have their germ and bran removed during processing, meaning that they are not as nutritious as they should be.

Season your soul food with spices, herbs, and veggies

Soul food contains a lot of ham hocks and other high-sodium processed meats. They are laced with seasoned garlic salt, cajun seasoning, and seasoned salt. Such heavily spiced foods contribute to your overall sodium intake.

Excessive consumption of sodium is associated with a high risk of stroke, high blood pressure, premature death, and heart disease (10, 11).

There is evidence that African Americans have a higher sensitivity to the blood-pressure-lowering effects of reduced salt intake. By reducing your sodium intake, you may have a 4 – 8 mmHg reduction in systolic blood pressure (10).

Season your foods with aromatic vegetables like garlic, onions, and celery, plus spices and herbs. These vegetables reduce sodium content, adds flavor to the food, and increases the antioxidant content of the food (12).

Cook in a different way

How you cook your food affects the nutrient value of your meal and disease risk.

Studies have shown that fried foods like fried fish, fried chicken, and potatoes are associated with a high risk of heart-related mortality (13).

It is also worth mentioning that high heat cooking techniques, like roasting, baking, frying, and grilling, introduce chemicals such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and acrylamide heterocyclic amines (HCAs) into the food (14, 15, 16).

Both chemicals are associated with a high risk of cancer. They can also increase one’s risk for diabetes (16, 17).

Stewing and boiling are healthy and very great alternatives for cooking grains, meats, and vegetables, but they may also cause loss of vital nutrients like lutein, vitamin C, and beta carotene (18).

Takeaway

Soul food is a classic embodiment of cultural legacies. It is known for its flavor and richness.

Some soul food items may contain plenty of sodium, fat, and added sugar. But then, there are plenty of other foods with lots of nutrients. Examples are legumes and leafy greens. Thus, you wouldn’t find it hard to make a nutrient-dense plate of soul food. All you have to do is place more emphasis on certain dishes.

Changing your cooking techniques can also help to improve the nutrient content of your food.