Soul food generally refers to the traditional cuisine of African Americans in the southern United States. It is a blend of African, Native American, and European cooking styles. Soul food has its roots in the kitchens of enslaved Africans and their descendants. The term “soul food” was first popularized in the 1960s by African American writer, Johnnie Mae Gibson, who used it in her cookbook, Soul Food: The Afro-American Cookbook. Soul food is typically hearty and filling. It often includes fried foods, such as chicken and fish, as well as greens, like collard greens and mustard greens. Soul food also typically features starchy vegetables and legumes, such as sweet potatoes and black-eyed peas. Although soul food is often associated with high fat, high-calorie, and high-sugar foods, it doesn’t have to be unhealthy. There are ways to make soul food healthier, without sacrificing flavor. Read on to learn more about healthy soul food and how to make it.
Why Is Soul Food Not Healthy?
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), African Americans ages 18–49 are twice as likely to die from heart disease as white Americans. African Americans ages 35-64 are also more likely to have high blood pressure than any other race or ethnicity in the United States (2).
The reasons for this disparity are complex and include social and economic disparities. Dietary factors can also play a role in the development of heart disease, high blood pressure and other lifestyle diseases.
A study published in the Journal of the National Medical Association found that people who ate a Southern-style diet—which is high in fat and salt and low in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains—were more likely to die from sudden cardiac death than those who didn’t eat this type of diet (15).
It’s not surprising, then, that people believe soul food is unhealthy.
Organ meats, processed meats, fried foods, sugar-sweetened beverages, and fatty meats are all staples of soul food.
What Soul Food Is Healthy?
Just because soul food has a bad reputation doesn’t mean it can’t be part of a healthy diet. In fact, there are many soul food dishes that are relatively healthy. These include:
Collard greens are part of the cruciferous vegetable family, which also includes broccoli, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts.
These vegetables are low in calories but high in nutrients, including fiber, vitamins C and K, and calcium. They’re also a good source of antioxidants, which can help protect your cells from damage (6).
Like collard greens, mustard greens are a cruciferous vegetable. They’re a good source of vitamins A, C, and K, as well as fiber and calcium. Mustard greens also contain plant compounds that may have anti-inflammatory and anticancer effects (6).
Sweet potatoes are a starchy vegetable that’s often used in soul food dishes. They’re a good source of vitamins A and C, potassium, and fiber. Sweet potatoes also contain carotenoids, which are pigments that have antioxidant properties (13).
Black-eyed peas are a type of legume that’s often used in soul food dishes. They’re a good source of protein, fiber, vitamins B and C, and minerals like iron and potassium (3).
Oxtail is a part of the beef tail that’s often used in soups and stews. It’s a good source of protein, iron, and zinc. Oxtail is high in saturated fat, so it should be enjoyed in moderation but does not need to be avoided.
Oxtail is also a rich source of bone collagen. This protein helps support the structure of your bones, skin, and connective tissues (5).
Spinach is a leafy green vegetable that’s often used in soul food dishes. It’s a good source of vitamins A, C, and K, as well as magnesium, iron, and calcium. Spinach also contains carotenoids, which are pigments that have antioxidant properties (9).
Yams are a relative of the sweet potato that’s often used in soul food dishes. They’re a good source of vitamins A and C, potassium, and fiber. Yams also contain carotenoids, which are pigments that have antioxidant properties (14).
Chicken, Turkey And Fish
Chicken, turkey, and fish are all lean sources of protein that can be used in soul food dishes. These meats are a good source of niacin, vitamin B6, and phosphorus. They’re also a good source of selenium, which is a mineral that has antioxidant properties (7).
Some types of fish, such as salmon and tuna, are also a good source of omega-3 fatty acids. These healthy fats have anti-inflammatory effects and may help improve heart health (10).
What Soul Food Is Unhealthy?
While there are many soul food dishes that are relatively healthy, there are also some that are high in calories, fat, and sodium. These include:
Fried chicken is a soul food staple that’s high in calories, fat, and sodium. One piece of fried chicken can have over 300 calories and 20 grams of fat (8). It’s also important to note that fried chicken is often breaded, which adds even more calories and fat.
Macaroni And Cheese
Macaroni and cheese is a classic soul food dish that’s high in calories, fat, and sodium. One cup of macaroni and cheese can have over 500 calories and 30 grams of fat (11). Many store-bought and restaurant-made macaroni and cheese dishes also contain high levels of sodium.
Biscuits And Gravy
Biscuits and gravy is a soul food dish that’s traditionally made with white flour biscuits, sausage, and gravy. This dish is high in calories, fat, and sodium. One biscuit with gravy can have over 300 calories and 20 grams of fat (4).
Cornbread is a soul food staple that’s often made with cornmeal, white flour and sugar. The problem with cornbread is that it’s high in calories and carbs but low in fiber and protein. This combination is not ideal for blood sugar management in those with diabetes or impaired glucose control (1).
Koolaid is a type of fruit-flavored drink mix that’s often served alongside soul food dishes. It comes in a powder form that’s mixed with water. Koolaid is high in sugar and has little nutritional value.
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How Can I Make Soul Food Healthier?
If you’re trying to eat healthier but don’t want to give up your favorite soul food dishes, there are some things you can do to make meal-time healthier.
Color Your Plate
Eating the rainbow is a term used to describe eating a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables. It can help you decide what to put on your plate and make sure you’re getting a variety of nutrients.
Aim for at least two colorful, plant-based foods at each meal. These can include dark leafy greens, brightly colored fruits and vegetables, beans, and whole grains.
For example, you could add a side of sautéed spinach and mashed yam to your plate of fried chicken. Or, you could serve your macaroni and cheese with a side of steamed broccoli.
Make It Lean
When you’re cooking soul food dishes, try to use leaner cuts of meat and skinless chicken. You can also trim the fat off of meat before cooking it. This will help reduce the amount of saturated fat in your meal.
You can also cook soul food dishes in healthier ways. For example, bake, broil, or grill your meat instead of frying it. Remove charred or blackened skin from grilled meat to reduce your exposure to carcinogens. Steam, saute or blanch vegetables instead of frying them.
Go Easy On The Sauce
Many soul food dishes are made with high-fat sauces or gravies. If you’re trying to eat healthier, go easy on these toppings. Use less sauce or gravy, or make your own with low-fat milk and flour. You can also try using broth-based or tomato-based sauces instead of cream-based sauces.
Add Extra Fiber
Fiber is an important nutrient that helps keep you full and can promote regularity. Adding extra fiber to your soul food dishes is a simple way to make them healthier.
There are many easy ways to add extra fiber to your meals. For example, you could add cooked beans to your macaroni and cheese or make cornbread with whole wheat flour. You could also serve vegetables as a side dish or add them to soups and stews.
Go For Whole Grains
Many soul food dishes are made with white flour, which is a refined grain. Refined grains have been stripped of their fiber and nutrients. They can cause blood sugar spikes and a diet high in them has been linked to an increased risk of obesity, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes (16).
Instead of white flour, choose whole wheat flour or another whole grain, such as quinoa, oats, barley, or brown rice. These grains are higher in fiber and nutrients. These can help you feel full and may even reduce your risk of chronic disease.
Go Easy On The Extras
Many soul food dishes are traditionally served with high-calorie sides and drinks. To make your meal healthier, go easy on the extras.
For example, instead of serving your fried chicken with biscuits and gravy, try serving it with a side salad or roasted vegetables. And, instead of serving Koolaid with your meal, have water or unsweetened iced tea.
Cut Back On Salt
Many soul food dishes are high in sodium. To make your meal healthier, try to cut back on the amount of salt you use when cooking. You can also look for low-sodium versions of ingredients like chicken broth, soy sauce, and spices.
If you’re eating out, ask that your food be prepared with less salt or avoid adding extra salt at the table. And, when you’re at home, taste your food before adding salt to it.
Season With Natural Herbs And Spices
Garlic salt, cajun seasoning, and other similar seasonings are high in sodium. To make your meal healthier, try using natural herbs and spices instead.
Some good options include basil, oregano, black pepper, cumin, ginger, and turmeric. You can also use fresh garlic, onion, and lemon juice to add flavor to your food.
Make It Spicy
Adding spice to your soul food dishes can not only make them more flavorful, but it can also help you eat less. Studies have suggested that spicy foods can boost metabolism and help you feel full after eating.
If you’re trying to eat less, add some spice to your food. You could try using cayenne pepper, or chili powder. You could also add some spice to your vegetables by sautéing them with garlic and ginger.
Avoid spices that have a high sodium content, such as Cajun seasoning and Creole seasoning.
Limit Portion Sizes
Portion control is an important part of healthy eating. When you’re serving soul food, be mindful of how much you’re eating. Try to avoid overeating by using smaller plates and bowls.
Save leftovers for another meal or share them with a friend or family member. You could also freeze leftover food so you have it on hand for future meals.
Other ways to limit portion sizes include:
- Drinking a glass of water before meals
- Eating slowly and mindfully
- Waiting 10 minutes before going for seconds
- Avoiding buffet-style meals
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Make Healthy Swaps
Modifying recipes is a great way to make your favorite soul food dishes healthier.
Here are some other healthy ingredient swaps you can make:
- Solid fats such as lard that are high in saturated fat → heart-healthy oils like olive, peanut, or canola
- High sodium, high fat meats like ham hocks → smoked, skinless turkey or chicken breast
- Marshmallows or brown sugar on yams → cinnamon, vanilla, a splash of orange juice, or honey
- Butter, lard or margarine in recipes → unsweetened applesauce
- Refined white flour → whole wheat flour
- High calorie salad dressings and mayonnaise → vinegar and oil, low fat ranch, or salsa
- 2% or whole milk → skim milk
- Gravy → marinate meats in herbs or spices instead
The Bottom Line
Soul food is a type of cuisine that’s traditionally associated with African American culture. It’s known for its rich, flavorful dishes that are often high in calories, fat, and sodium.
If you’re trying to eat healthier, there are some things you can do to make your soul food meals healthier. These include adding color to your plate, choosing leaner cuts of meat, cooking in healthier ways, and cutting back on high-calorie extras.
You can also try to reduce the amount of salt in your soul food dishes.
When it comes to eating healthy, remember that moderation is key. You don’t have to eliminate all of your favorite soul food dishes from your diet. Just make sure you’re eating them in moderation and balance them out with healthier choices.
This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!
- A review of recent evidence relating to sugars, insulin resistance and diabetes (2016, nih.gov)
- African American Health (2017, cdc.gov)
- An Investigation on Phenolic and Antioxidant Capacity of Under-utilized Food Legumes Consumed in China (2020, nih.gov)
- Biscuits and Gravy – 1 biscuit with gravy (n.d., nutritionix.com)
- Collagen (n.d., harvard.edu)
- Crucial facts about health benefits of popular cruciferous vegetables (2012, sciencedirect.com)
- Dietary protein intake and human health (2016, pubmed.gov)
- Fried Chicken (n.d., nutritionix.com)
- Functional properties of spinach (Spinacia oleracea L.) phytochemicals and bioactives (2016, pubmed.gov)
- Health Benefits of Fish (n.d., doh.wa.gov)
- Homemade Macaroni And Cheese (n.d., nutritionix.com)
- Salt and Sodium (n.d., harvard.edu)
- Sweet Potatoes (n.d., harvard.edu)
- The Dioscorea Genus (Yam)—An Appraisal of Nutritional and Therapeutic Potentials (2020, nih.gov)
- The Southern diet – fried foods and sugary drinks – may raise risk of sudden cardiac death (2021, sciencedaily.com)
- Whole-Grain Processing and Glycemic Control in Type 2 Diabetes: A Randomized Crossover Trial (2020, nih.gov)