The statistics are scary. Of all the African-American deaths in this country in 2001, 33 percent of the men and 40 percent of the women died of cardiovascular disease. More than three-fourths of this country`s African-American women are classified as overweight; ditto for almost two-thirds of the black men.
These are only a few of the figures the American Heart Association has gathered in its quest to stem diet-related death and disease among African-Americans, and February`s confluence of Black History Month and American Heart Month throws the figures into high relief.
Dietitians, cookbook writers and African-American chefs are shining a hard light on the traditional soul-food diet, which has greatly influenced Southern cooking in general. And the consensus is that soul-food cooks can reduce the risk of heart disease without sacrificing the kind of soul-soothing flavors that have nurtured African-Americans through the years.
One thing the dietitians agree on is that African-American food traditions are not inherently bad. The strengths of the soul-food pantry include a heavy reliance on vegetables and legumes, and African-Americans are often more likely to eat fish than their Caucasian counterparts.
Texas Christian University Department of Nutritional Science chairwoman Anne VanBeber, for one, applauds the use of leafy greens — collards, kale, mustard, chard, turnip greens — on African-American tables.
“Those are so healthy, and the average Caucasian American doesn`t even know what those are,” she notes.
Legumes such as black-eyed peas, pinto beans and lima beans also rank high on nutritionists` list of healthful foods, as do many of the vegetables that figure prominently in soul-food traditions, such as sweet potatoes, okra, tomatoes and squash.
So what are the pitfalls of the soul-food style of eating?
A big part of the problem, experts agree, is that a diet that evolved to feed people for whom hard physical labor was a daily reality is still being eaten by people who are no longer physically active.
The people who once “were up at dawn to plow the back forty before having breakfast,” notes African-American food expert Jessica B. Harris in The Welcome Table (Fireside Books, $12), now “ride cars and buses and subways to workplaces where we sit at desks.”
Another trend is the intrusion of salt- and fat-laden fast food, snack foods and prepared foods into a diet that was traditionally — and labor-intensively — cooked from scratch.
And at the top of most nutritionists` lists of no-nos are frying — especially with saturated fats such as shortening — and the use of fatty pork products.
The main problems are high fat and high sodium.
“Part of it stems from the old traditional cooking, using high-saturated-fat pork products — fatback, ham hocks, chitlins, bacon, hog jowls, pigs` feet,” says registered dietitian Diane Sparks, vice chairwoman of the American Heart Association Tarrant County Division`s African-American Outreach Task Force.
“In general, just like the rest of the American public,” notes VanBeber, African-Americans are “not educated on what fats are good and what fats are bad.”
Fort Worth restaurateur Teresa Colette Lister is one cook who knows the difference. Her Colette`s Cafe and Catering on Brentwood Stair Road has earned a loyal following for its healthful take on down-home cooking. Lister uses only olive oil and has adapted traditional fried favorites such as catfish and chicken into lower-fat dishes by using the grill and the oven.
The Chicago native says her personal food revolution came about as she saw family members suffering from what she reasoned were the effects of their fat-, salt- and sugar-filled diet — the same diet she grew up eating.
You wonder, `Is there something we could do differently?`
Lister`s answer was to give up sweets and bad fats at her own table, exploring different cooking techniques to come up with grease-free dishes. When she opened her restaurant, she brought some of those techniques to the commercial kitchen.
“I experimented with seasonings until I got it to taste the way I thought it should,” she said. “My cabbage and greens — people wouldn`t even know there wasn`t meat in it.” Instead of butter- and sugar-laden candied yams, Lister slices sweet potatoes thinly and sautees them in olive oil.
Lister notes that incorporating vegetables or fruit into baked goods — such as her signature broccoli corn muffins — helps make them moist without using a lot of fat, and she relies on skim milk rather than whole for baking.
But “none of my desserts are healthy,” she notes with a grin. “People should share a dessert.”
Reducing portion sizes is another way Lister addresses the risk of obesity; she notes that “our Southern hospitality gets the best of us.”
Dietitian Sparks believes she has seen progress in her work as a clinical dietitian at the John Peter Smith Hospital Health Center — Stop Six and with the heart association`s task force, whose Search Your Heart program has enlisted more than 70 local churches in the crusade to educate African-Americans about their health risks.
“We want to pass this along, generation to generation, so the younger people coming up will have healthier ways of eating,” Sparks says.
Among those more healthful ways of eating are the accompanying suggestions and recipes from the heart association, Sparks, Lister, VanBeber and other sources.
Get the diet details:
Resources for information on the African-American diet:
American Heart Association, (817) 315-5000.
John Peter Smith Health Center — Stop Six, (817) 920-7150 (switchboard); (817) 920-7168 (dietitian`s office).
John Peter Smith Health Center — Viola Pitts/Como, (817) 920-7450 (dietitian`s office).
Harris Methodist Fort Worth hospital, Paulette Golden, (817) 878-5002.
The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute has materials that can be downloaded online or ordered through the mail, including a cookbook, “Heart-Healthy Home Cooking African American Style.” Call (301) 592-8573 or (240) 629-3255 (TTY); or write to NHLBI Health Information Center, Box 30105, Bethesda, MD 20824; or go online at www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/public/ heart/other/chdblack/cooking.htm.
Hebni nutritional consultants, creators of the Soul Food Pyramid: www.soulfoodpyramid.org.
Tips for a more healthful soul-food table:
Instead of fatty, smoked pork meats such as ham hocks, salt pork, pig tails or bacon, use smoked turkey or turkey neck to flavor beans and greens. Or use lower-fat neck bones or oxtails.
Select lean meats, and trim all fat before cooking; drain off fat after browning.
Eat more fish, chicken and turkey than beef and pork.
Cooking meat with wine adds flavor (most of the alcohol will evaporate in the cooking).
Avoid saturated fats — “mostly animal fats; those are the bad guys that raise cholesterol,” says registered dietitian Diane Sparks. Instead of butter or shortening, use olive oil, canola oil or peanut oil. Whenever possible, use vegetable-oil cooking spray; this works better if you have nonstick cookware.
Remove skin from poultry before cooking (to avoid dry roast chicken, you can leave the skin on and remove it before eating).
Grill, bake, roast, steam, braise or stir-fry instead of deep-frying.
Rely on assertive seasonings — garlic, onion, bell pepper, spicy seasoning blends or hot sauces, vinegar or lemon juice — to lift the flavor profile of reduced-fat and reduced-sodium recipes.
If a recipe calls for whole milk, use skim or reduced-fat milk; ditto with sour cream (or use low-fat yogurt, or whirl reduced-fat cottage cheese in a blender as a substitute); use evaporated skim milk instead of full-fat evaporated milk. Also try skim-milk cheese instead of full-fat cheese for recipes. For drinking, you can gradually scale back from whole milk by switching to 2 percent, then 1 percent, then skim.
Up the ratio of vegetables to meat in meals.
Limit egg yolks to three or four per week; use egg substitutes or substitute two egg whites for a whole egg in recipes.
To satisfy cravings for sweets, buy dried fruit instead of candy.
In baking, use nonstick bakeware to eliminate the fat used for greasing the pans. For pies, graham cracker crusts are lower in fat than traditional pastry.
For dessert, try a fresh fruit salad instead of commercial baked goods, or sherbet instead of ice cream.