Author: Sara Habibipour
Food is one of the very many ways that culture is expressed among human beings. The food that we allow to pass down our digestive tract and to nourish our cells often portrays more than just a biological process; it not only reveals the history of a group of people, but the futures of their health. Although certain groups of people may have similar genetic code, their health and genetic predispositions can be altered by their long-term diets. An example of this difference is between native Africans and African-Americans. This essay will compare the general diets of these two groups, the cultures that affect their food intake, the health effects of their respective diets, and explain the results when these two groups switch diets.
Africa is a highly diverse continent with several thousand different ethnic groups and vast differences in climate and terrain. Known to be the most fertile region of Africa, the Nile Valley historically was and continues to be a rich source of fish, animal, and plant food. In the drier African savannas, especially after the Sahara region became arid after 6000 B.C.E., nomad tribes raised cattle, goats, or sheep, which served as their main food source. Crops that were less affected by extreme weather like cereals and tubers (such as yams) became popular throughout the continent and have remained important staples in the African diet today. Generally, the African diet is based on whole, fresh plant foods, especially vegetables such as leafy greens, yams and sweet potatoes, beans, nuts and peanuts, rice, ﬂatbreads and other whole grains, healthy oils, sauces and marinades of herbs and spices, ﬁsh, eggs, poultry yogurt, and minimal consumption of meats and sweets due to the expensiveness of those items and economic constraints (“African Diet”). But, because Africa is such a diverse continent, there are some variations to this diet. For example, the North and East African diet reflect their Islamic traditions by refraining from pork. All regions, however, have a staple diet of some sort of rice with stew. Unfortunately, there are threats to the African diet that are not necessarily faced as commonly in developed countries. This threat comes from increasingly insecure food sources arising from adverse weather (drought and floods) and war. During the late 1900s, famine became increasingly frequent in Africa. In addition, a new threat to the food supply emerged due to the worsening HIV/AIDS epidemic. As adults fall ill and die, agricultural production declines (“African Diet”). These circumstances can have health effects on Africans that they constantly have to adapt to in order to survive. In many parts of Africa, the traditional diets of indigenous peoples are often inadequate in essential vitamins, minerals, and protein, which can lead to a variety of diseases, particularly vitamin A, iodine, and iron deficiencies, which can result in vision impairment, goiter, and anemia, which are prevalent particularly in the arid areas where the soil is deficient either naturally or due to overuse (“African Diet”). However, these health effects aren’t necessarily a result of the traditional African diet themselves, as it is being affected by environmental, political, and economic factors. Unlike developed countries where the main causes of death are heart disease and cancer (which are heavily influenced by diet), the leading causes of death in Africa are a result of infectious diseases including lower respiratory tract infections, HIV/AIDS, diarrheal diseases, malaria, and tuberculosis (van Vuuren). Therefore, compared to developed countries, the traditional African diet is far healthier than the fatty, high-calorie diets of the Western world.
African-Americans have dietary preferences influenced by culture and necessity. In fact, most factors examining the influence of culture on diet have been conducted on African Americans. Studies have shown that, in general, African Americans accept or are comfortable with larger body sizes, which may limit the extent to which healthy eating efforts are sustained. African Americans also consider eating as a social experience surrounded by family, swaying them to eat more. On a positive note, they are less likely (compared to Whites) to practice unhealthy dietary behaviors, such as over-exercising or purging. For example, in a study of 1,709 White, African American, and Latina women in which respondents reported their weight loss behaviors during the previous 30 days, including using diet pills, exercising, purging (vomiting, laxatives, diuretics), and dieting, African Americans were least likely to practice these behaviors compared with Whites and Latinas (Satia, 2009). However, an integral part of black culture, especially in the South, is the preference for a particular type of cuisine called soul food, which typically involves fried foods and lots of fatty meats prepared with rich gravies. Soul food has been strongly tied to black culture due to its ties with the African slaves’ past. Soul food was developed during the era when slave masters gave enslaved black people the undesirable cuts of meat (Collins). A convergence of different types of foods caused by the cultural fusion of the English settlers, Native Americans, and African slaves also became the basis of Southern cuisine. The African slaves learned how to fry, boil, and roast dishes using pork, pork fat, corn, sweet potatoes, and local green leafy vegetables which were the styles of cooking used by the British, French, Americans, and Spanish (Belle). Although these foods are so strongly tied to the history of an entire group of people, it definitely does not promote a healthy lifestyle. Diabetes is sixty percent more common among black Americans than in white Americans, and nearly forty-two percent of black men and more than forty-five percent of black women older than twenty have high blood pressure (DeNoon). It has been difficult to encourage African-Americans to eat healthier due to their strong cultural beliefs and familial ties regarding food. Therefore, a good approach to encouraging healthier eating habits would involve teaching people to cook soul food in healthier ways such as baking, roasting, or broiling meats instead of frying. Education is also crucial in promoting healthier eating habits. Media focused on African-American audiences have much more credibility, particularly if the sources are people of color. If churches and other organizations held seminars to encourage healthier eating habits, it would help the community to make healthier choices (Belle).
The main differences between the diets of these two groups all tie back their respective cultures. For example, religion plays one of the most influential roles in the choices and subsequent selection of foods consumed in certain societies. Most forms of the Christian religion allow the consumption of any type of meat without the need for any kind of repentance to God in the form of prayer (Dindyal, 2003), and about eighty percent of all African Americans are Christian, further influencing the nutritional makeup of soul food (“Religious Composition of Blacks”). However, the African continent is made up of many different ethnic groups with different dietary restrictions. For example, the Muslims in northern, sub-Saharan, and eastern Africa are not allowed to eat pork, whereas the nomadic peoples of the desert do. But, the United States, the homeland of the African-Americans, does not promote healthy eating aside from soul food either. The average 3,641 calorie American diet consists of thirty-seven percent sugar and fat, and only eight percent produce compared to the Somalian diet with only a 1,695 calorie diet consisting of mainly of grains (thirty-eight percent) (“National Geographic: What the World Eats”). We can see the pure effects of these different diets on health by looking at one study by the University of Pittsburgh where twenty African Americans and twenty South Africans switched diets for two weeks. During the study period, the Africans consumed traditional American food — meat and cheese high in fat content — while African Americans took on a traditional African diet — high in fiber and low in fat, with lots of vegetables, beans, and cornmeal, with little meat. Although the study represented a fairly small sample size, at the end of the study, researchers performed colonoscopies on both groups and found that those in the African diet group had an increased production of butyrate, a fatty acid proven to protect against colon cancer. Members of the American diet group, on the other hand, developed changes in their gut that scientists say precede the development of cancerous cells (Collins). This study proves that the traditional African diet promotes better health than the current African-American diet. But, for many African Americans, particularly those living in low-income communities, adopting this traditional African cuisine is easier said than done. Even if people of color wanted to incorporate healthy food into their diets, many of them account for the more than 49 million Americans who live in areas with high food insecurity, where the nearest grocery store is more than one mile away from their home (Collins). Many times, food stamps won’t suffice. Additionally, an inflexible work schedule and the stress of paying bills also relegates many poor people few options beyond purchasing fast food for their families — activities less likely to occur in rural regions of Africa (although they do face other dietary problems, such as severe malnutrition).
In conclusion, the existing health disparities associated with native Africans and African-Americans stem from both groups’ cultural pasts. After multiple studies regarding the general diet among certain groups of people, the traditional African diet has proven itself to be healthier than soul food. However, there is still more to be done regarding educating African Americans about their food choices, making sure that the government supports these healthier food choices with an appropriate amount of money, and diminishing the poverty and food insecurity that prevents millions of African Americans from living a healthy lifestyle.
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