Healthy Eating With the African Heritage Diet Pyramid

Oldways' African Heritage Diet Pyramid, illustrated by George Middleton.

I have to send a big thank you to my Twitter buddy @OccupyYouriPod for bringing this to my attention. (Check out his Web site, Earshot, for some very nice podcasts of soul, jazz, hip-hop, and other genres!)

An organization called Oldways, which promotes healthy eating rooted in cultural traditions, has recently released what they call The African Heritage Diet Pyramid. This food pyramid focuses on foods that have historically been enjoyed by members of the African diaspora, in the American South, Caribbean, South America and the various African countries. It was created in an evidence-based manner, by an advisory panel of nutrition and history experts and a grant from the Walmart Foundation. (Oldways also pioneered the Mediterranean Diet pyramid and offers Asian, Latino and vegetarian diet pyramids.)

At the foundation of the pyramid are leafy green vegetables. They are among the foods recommended to be eaten the most in a diet, along with fruits, peanuts and nuts, other vegetables, tubers, whole grains and beans and peas. Included in the whole grains category are barley, couscous, kamut, corn, millet, rice, sorghum, teff and wild rice. Herbs, spices and traditional sauces are also an integral part of the cuisine. (Salt is not included in this category, but rather vinegar, annatto, arrowroot, bay leaf, cinnamon, cilantro, cloves, coconut milk, coriander, dill, ginger, mustard, nutmeg, oregano, paprika, parsley, peppers, sage and sesame.)

The primary non-vegetarian source of protein recommended is fish and seafood, which they recommend people eat often, at least two times a week. Eggs, poultry and other meats (not including pork) are treated as stepchildren to seafood, and people are encouraged to eat them “moderately, in small portions, or as garnishes for other dishes.” Healthy oils are similarly to be used sparingly. Dairy is relegated to moderate daily or weekly portions (with alternate suggestions for people who are lactose intolerant), and sweets are considered an occasional treat.

In addition to food, people are encouraged to drink water and enjoy a healthy lifestyle, which includes physical activity (no duration and frequency are specified) and enjoying meals with others. An enlarged pyramid can be found here. A listing of recommended foods can be found here. A glossary explaining the various fruits, vegetables, seasonings and grains can be found here. A listing of scientific studies of the health viability of traditional African diets can be found here. Recipes created by Dr. Jessica B. Harris, a culinary historian who has written numerous cookbooks, can be found here.

The premise is that many of the foods that we already enjoy are healthy, but that they should be prepared in a lighter manner (in effect, without a lot of salt or fat) for people to experience the most health benefits.

This pyramid makes a lot of sense to me. Many of the suggestions sound a lot like things my husband, who is from Ivory Coast, would eat. A dream meal for him, for example, is grilled fish with attieke (basically a type of couscous made from cassava) and a side of peppers, onions and tomatoes. I have also learned from him about various vegetable-based sauces in which meat is cooked or served; favorites of his include an eggplant sauce and an okra sauce. Many of the foods he grew up with are also cooked using dried fish or shrimp, which are included on the African Heritage pyramid.

From the Americas, I had a conversation with a coworker recently about making a meal out of greens made with smoked turkey, something that historically has not been out of the ordinary. And various iterations of rice and beans or peas are also staple meals for people of African and Latin descent across these continents.

It was a pleasant surprise to learn about this new food pyramid. I love that it encourages people of African descent, and others who love the food, to continue eating the kinds of foods they are familiar with, just prepared in a more healthy manner. That it is firmly rooted in the various cultures of the African Diaspora makes me feel that I’m tapping into something that my ancestors near and far knew intimately and enjoyed–whether it was my grandfather from Arkansas, who passed away well before I was born and grew up on a farm, or nameless, distant relatives from a mystery African country that can only be made clear to me through records research and DNA testing. We all know and love heavier “soul food” comfort dishes, but this pyramid puts us in touch with “body food”–staples that, when cooked appropriately, are good fuel sources, brimming with healthy nutrients that come to the forefront.

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