By Denise Williams | News & Views
What we eat can come back to bite us.
That’s true for anyone; and if you’re in cardiopulmonary rehabilitation, it means your patient who is in need of more physical activity could also probably benefit from some modification of his or her eating habits.
A diet high in fat, sodium and calories can contribute to or exacerbate poor health outcomes including obesity, diabetes, elevated cholesterol levels, hypertension or other cardiac problems. While many cuisines, including French and Hispanic foods, meet this criteria, the time-honored Southern cooking style favored by African Americans grabs the spotlight in June as the country observes National Soul Food Month and Juneteenth. And actually, certified diabetes care and education specialist, nutrition consultant and author Constance Brown-Riggs, RDN, reminds us, any holiday or special occasion in the Black community – at any time of the year – is likely to feature soul food as part of the celebration!
Change the Frequency
Enjoying some fried chicken, candied yams and other soul food dishes every now and then is perfectly fine, according to Brown, founder of CBR Nutrition Enterprises. It’s also a great starting point, she suggests, for someone whose diet needs to be refined but who is likely to struggle with that change. Having heavily salted, fatty foods all day every day is a no-no, but Brown-Riggs believes that treating oneself even one day out of the week is manageable. You can assure your CR/PR patients that improving their nutrition doesn’t have to mean completely forfeiting this important piece of family tradition, she says. But taking care not to overeat these foods is critical. “If you’re following a healthy eating pattern throughout the course of the week, and Sunday is the only day that you get together with family and have your traditional soul food meal,” that’s the equivalent of 1-3 indulgent meals out of 21, which Brown-Riggs doubts is likely to result in “the kind of damage that might happen if you ate that diet every single day.”
Change the Preparation
Even better than reducing the frequency of consumption, the nutritionist says, is changing how soul food is prepared. It can be a tough sell, however, convincing a patient – for example, an 84-year-old grandmother who’s been cooking the same way her whole life – that oven-fried chicken is a tasty alternative to dunking it in the deep fryer. How can you get her to see that her family can still enjoy collard greens that aren’t seasoned with ham hocks and that sweet potatoes are quite delicious even when they aren’t smothered in butter, brown sugar and marshmallow topping? A stepdown approach to reducing fat, sodium and calories will probably yield better results than trying to force a total and sudden lifestyle reboot, Brown-Riggs advises. For patients who haven’t yet reached a place where they can avoid fried foods most of the time, for instance, she recommends encouraging them to use a nonstick pan and minimal oil. Or if they simple aren’t ready to try an undressed sweet potato sprinkled only with cinnamon and nutmeg, preparing candied yams without the marshmallows or using Splenda’s brown sugar blend instead of a full-sugar sweetener will help save some calories in the meantime.
There are countless substitutions and changes that can help create healthier meals, and Brown-Riggs is happy to highlight a few more of her standbys:
- Do not over-boil collard greens and other vegetables. Many people prefer a softer texture; but the more time they spend cooking on the stove, the more that water-soluble vitamins will leach out of vegetables. As a remedy, some of the liquid used to cook them can be reserved and put back into the dish (think mashed potatoes), or even used in other veggies.
- Adding a little bit of healthy fat to the pot will actually help retain the fat-soluble nutrients in greens and other veggies – but lard, bacon fat and other solid fats are to be avoided.
- Get used to preparing food instead with heart-healthy liquid fats, including pure vegetable oil, canola oil and olive oil – or even with a piece of lean meat.
For more detailed information on what to do and not do, read Brown-Riggs’ 2021 article, “Three Strategies for Heart-Healthy Eating,”on diatribe.org. She also has penned a number of guides on food choices for diabetics, who are at increased risk for heart disease.
Change the Narrative
You can give people a million alternatives and still encounter resistance, Brown-Riggs admits. “With some people,” she says, “it really does just take time.”
Part of that reluctance may come from the certain nostalgia attached to soul food, she muses, in which case you might point out that modern-day soul food is not the original soul food. The current version catches a lot of flak, she says, for its potential to mediate unfavorable health outcomes. In reality, though, the ancestors had a very healthy diet, one that descendants should aspire to reclaim. Meat was not readily available in the old days, Brown-Riggs goes on, and thus accounted for only a small part of the cuisine. Fried foods, meanwhile, were virtually nonexistent. Rather, the focus was on high-fiber, plant-based eating – not to be confused with a vegetarian diet – which was characterized by high intake of fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
Today’s African-American community would do well to recreate that palate, according to Brown-Riggs, along with the cultural values closely linked to it. She nods to the African Heritage Pyramid as a case in point. Created by an expert panel of nutritionists in 2011, the diet plan uses a hands-on cooking curriculum to bring people back into the fold, so to speak. The goal is to get families back into the kitchen to prepare meals together, to prepare them in the traditional healthy fashion of early generations, and to sit down to enjoy the menu together as a unit. Although the African Heritage Pyramid is not especially well known, Brown-Riggs believes it’s certainly worth adding to the bag of tricks that might persuade stubborn soul food holdouts to make some necessary tweaks to their diet, without sacrificing flavor or culture and potentially restoring health in the process.
Constance Brown-Riggs, MSEd, RDN, CDCES, CDN, is a national speaker and author of the Diabetes Guide to Enjoying Foods of the World as well as other publications.