It may be controversial to suggest that African Americans need a food pyramid tailor-made for them, but then again, this group has experienced the greatest surge in obesity and related illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes.
Getting back to home-cooked basic dishes — based on staples from the American South, Caribbean, South America, and, yes, Africa — was the thought behind the new African heritage diet pyramid created by Oldways, a nonprofit nutrition education organization based in Boston.
Just like Oldways’ Mediterranean diet pyramid and the federal government’s My Plate, the African diet pyramid focuses on fruits and vegetables — with greens including collard, mustard, and kale taking the most prominent spot at the base of the pyramid, which means they should be eaten at every meal. Fruits such as papayas, bananas, and watermelon, and root vegetables such as sweet potatoes and carrots are directly above and should also be eaten in plentiful amounts.
Dairy, though, is found near the top — right under sweets — with recommendations to eat limited amounts, once a day or several times a week. That’s in striking contrast to the federal government’s recommendation to drink milk or eat dairy with every meal, which has come under fire from Harvard nutrition experts.
The emphasis on less dairy is a nod to lactose intolerance, according to Oldways, which affects up to 75 percent of African Americans.
“We worked with culinary historians to put this pyramid together, drawing on foods that are central to traditions such as greens, yams, homemade marinades, seafood, and to a lesser extent poultry, dairy, and meats,” said Oldways president Sara Baer-Sinnott.
What about all those deep-fried foods that are hallmarks of Southern cooking?
“Crisco isn’t exactly ancient,” said Baer-Sinnott, “so we emphasized preparing foods in a healthier way” by baking, grilling, and broiling — all methods that harken back to centuries past when obesity was rare in black communities.
In choosing a panel of nutritionists, historians, and sociologists to put the pyramid together, Baer-Sinnott added, “our idea was that heritage would be a motivator for change. We needed to try something new because other things don’t seem to be working.”
Just how much impact the new pyramid will have remains to be seen, but registered dietitian Vivien Morris, who helped develop it, told me it has been well received by African-American church groups that she’s met with in the Boston area.
“I think a lot of people are eager to get back to their common roots,” she said. “I grew up in North Carolina, and we used to keep sweet potatoes around as a dessert food. We snacked on peanuts and always had kale since it had such a long growing season.”
Yesterday, Oldways announced that it received a $100,000 grant from the Walmart Foundation to get the word out about the new pyramid via supermarket tours, cooking classes, and nutrition lectures to be held in Boston and elsewhere.