The Oldways Table Blog

Celebrating health,
happiness, heritage,
and delicious,
nutritious food.

February 11, 2016 | Oldways Table

February is a time to celebrate love, Black History Month, American Heart Month, and Cancer Prevention Month. It’s also National Sweet Potato Month, which offers a great excuse to get cozy with one of the most nutritious vegetables on the planet. Interestingly sweet potatoes play a role in all of this month's celebrations. They're a staple tuber in the traditional African heritage diet (make this Sweet Potato Peanut Stew and you'll never be the same!), and they offer nutritional benefits that support heart health and cancer prevention.

It’s no wonder that sweet potatoes have been part of American culture, and a part of heritage diets, for centuries. Pureed, mashed, roasted, or baked, there are countless ways to enjoy their nutritious goodness and sweet, deep flavor. Plus there are hundreds of types of sweet potatoes, ranging from mild white to deep super-sweet red — all of which boast a nuanced difference in taste and texture. If you're looking for a potato that is creamy and fluffy, a white tater is best; for a dense, caramelized flavor, try deep orange or red.

In addition to great flavor and texture, sweet potatoes deliver on nutrition, too, providing vitamins A and C, fiber and antioxidants, while being low in calories. For those who are diagnosed with diabetes, sweet potatoes are low on the glycemic index and may play a role in lowering blood sugar. Last year we worked with the North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission to develop this toolkit, full of information about these delightful tubers ranging from a brief history to easy ways to cook and a lot of recipes. Health professionals and health curiosos alike can find the ONE Toolkit here for free download.

Wondering about the difference between a yam and a sweet potato? Here’s a pop quiz to set you straight. And remember, if your mama called them yams you will too, even if what you’re cooking is really a sweet potato.

Check out these 10 Creative Ways to Eat More Sweet Potatoes. We hope your February is extra-sweet with these tips!

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February 9, 2016 | Oldways Table

Nutrition advice can’t be boiled down to headlines without losing important context. For this reason, Americans are often on the receiving end of partial dietary advice without access to the complete picture.

These headlines often fall into one of two categories: what to eat, and what not to eat. The trouble is that most foods are only “good” or “bad” in the context of what they’re replacing. For example, many would agree that juice is certainly a better choice than soda. But it’s certainly no replacement for water. Indeed, no one sentence can sum up the complex hierarchy of eating choices, which is why what we eat is just as important as what we don’t.

Decades ago, when researchers advocated eating a lower fat diet (after studying the benefits of healthy, plant-based diets), they certainly never intended for us to eat more sugar. But without ever getting the message about what to eat instead, that’s precisely what we did. The failure of “low fat” messages is also largely attributed to the focus on nutrients instead of foods. After all, any junk food can be reformulated to be low fat, delivering a good source of whatever nutrient is in vogue. But without enough focus on the “what to eat” messages, food marketers were all too eager to fill the communication gap, hence the rise (and fall) of the infamous Snackwell cookies.

Positive messages about what to eat are also helpful from a psychological standpoint, and research backs this up. According to the 2015 Food and Health Survey from the International Food Information Council, a whopping 78% of people strongly agree (33%) or somewhat agree (45%) that they would prefer positive messages about what to eat rather than negative messages about what not to eat. In fact, only 13% of people said they were looking for “free from” messages on packages (such as fat free, sugar free) – down from 24% in 2012.

That said, messages to “eat more” of certain foods are also incomplete. For example, eating more whole grains is only half of the picture—we also need to eat fewer refined grains. Public health experts hope that by eating more of these healthy foods, less healthy foods will naturally get pushed off the plate. But Americans are nothing if not ambitious eaters. While we may be eating more of these healthy foods, we also tend to be eating more in general. This is the land of plenty, after all.

Practical advice that encompasses what to eat and what not to eat can also help us learn the difference between foods that aren’t bad for us and foods that are actually good for us. For example, headlines claiming that “butter is back” (based on studies showing that high butter diets were no worse than high sugar and white bread diets) failed to report that choosing butter instead of unsaturated fats (found in fish, nuts, seeds, and safflower oil) or whole grains can actually increase heart disease risk.

As research on butter and heart disease clearly illustrates, what we eat and what we don’t eat both contribute to health outcomes. For this reason, the scientists of Oldways Common Ground, a diverse panel of the world’s leading nutrition experts, strongly endorse the general principle of specifying practical dietary substitutions – a “compared to what” approach. Meaningful nutrition guidelines may not make for sexy headlines, but it’s just the kind of tangible advice that can help bring common sense back to the table.

- Kelly Toups, Whole Grains Council Program Manager

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February 3, 2016 | Oldways Table

While it is important to keep abreast of the latest nutrition research, it shouldn't feel like watching a pingpong match. “Fundamentals and current understanding do NOT change every time a new study makes headlines,” according to the Oldways Common Ground scientists. Despite the subtle variations and interpretations of healthy eating, decades of research give us a fairly well-rounded picture of a nutritious diet.

The “gold standard” of nutrition research is the randomized clinical trial, in which participants are randomly assigned to various diets and then followed to see how the diet affects their health. These studies are very expensive, as they require a large enough group of people to be able to see changes, and must be conducted over several weeks, months, years, or even decades, depending on what scientists are trying to track.

Despite the challenges, clinical data proves that diets featuring fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and other minimally processed plant foods are healthy. The PREDIMED trial was a groundbreaking randomized clinical trial where adults at risk of heart disease were assigned to various diet groups (Mediterranean diet + nuts, Mediterranean diet + olive oil, or a low fat control group). The Mediterranean diet groups fared so well that the study ended early, as it was deemed unethical to prevent the control group from switching to a Mediterranean diet. Similarly, trials in which people are randomly assigned to either whole grains or refined grains demonstrate that whole grains may help improve cholesterol, inflammation, and insulin action. While large clinical trials are not as common as other types of research (due to big expenses and time committments), they add an additional layer of credibility to the large body of observational research available.

Observational studies, in which people are followed over a long period of time while scientists study their eating habits and health to look for relationships, are easier to carry out and are more common in nutrition research. However, observational studies can only show correlation — that one factor is associated with another — not that one factor caused another. Nonetheless, correlation is a useful scientific principle, and dismissing correlation entirely (by dismissing observational studies) is a misguided understanding of science. For example, the tobacco industry abused this principle to argue that smoking does not cause lung cancer, because correlation is not causation. Yet even though no one will ever do a clinical trial requiring one group to smoke and the other to abstain, we know that quitting smoking is a healthy move, and we know that based on observational studies.

While correlation alone does not prove causation, multiple correlations from well-designed studies that all reach the same conclusion can be sufficient — especially when combined with biological plausibility. (For example, if studies show whole grains are associated with heart health, and lab tests show whole grains make blood vessels more flexible, this offers a solid biological basis for the correlation.) Indeed, biology (adaptation, evolution, plausibility) and heritage (cultural traditions) are relevant sources of real-world information that can enhance our understanding of the long-term feasibility and health effects of diet.

It is very difficult to prove cause-effect relationships in scientific studies, especially in nutrition studies. After all, unlike drug trials (in which you either take the drug or you don’t), humans eat all day, creating endless food choices and lifestyle decisions. Additionally, there are a countless number of nutrition philosophies. Studying the lifetime effects of every fad diet simply isn’t feasible. Nonetheless, the current body of research shows very strong relationships between certain eating patterns (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and other wholesome plant foods) and health.

Science, by its very definition, is not supposed to ever be final — but we can act now. As Dr. David Katz (one of our Oldways Common Ground co-chairs) often says, we already know how to prevent 80% of disease, so let’s not waste time arguing. Rather than being paralyzed by not knowing every minute detail about health, pitting one nutrient against another, let’s act on what we do know. And what we do know is a balanced diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans, and other minimally processed foods is a wise (and wonderfully delicious) place to start.

Bonus: For a week's worth of healthy recipes and groceries that make up a balanced diet, try using the Oldways Cart.

Kelly Toups, Whole Grains Council Program Manager & In-House Dietitian

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January 28, 2016 | Oldways Table

African American ancestors brought a huge array of food traditions to the Caribbean, South America, and the southern states of the U.S. Many of these traditions were lost with the influences of American eating habits, and health has suffered. Scientific studies show that the diseases affecting many African Americans today — like diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and obesity — typically skyrocket as traditional diets are left behind.

But chronic disease was not always part of African heritage. To educate people about the healthful roots of African heritage cuisine, we developed our African Heritage & Health Program. The African Heritage Diet Pyramid guides people to healthy traditions and foods, and our volunteer-driven class series, A Taste of African Heritage, is having huge impacts on participants around the country.

We're celebrating our Fifth Annual African Heritage & Health Week Feb. 1 to 7, which also marks the start of Black History Month. The best way to join the AH&H Week Party is to eat African heritage foods and share your experiences with friends, family, or on social media with the tag #EatAfricanHeritage365. Visit the AH&H Week page for complete details, and check out our recipe database to get cooking. And be sure to check out our Sweet Potato Peanut Stew, or Mafe in West Africa, recipe below.


8 Easy Steps to Add African Heritage to Your Diet and #EatAfricanHeritage365:

1. Go For Greens. Greens like spinach, collards, mustards, and turnip greens are a big part of African heritage cuisine; they help keep your blood, liver, and kidneys in top health. Cook them lightly to retain all of their extraordinary nutrients.

2. Savor the Staples. Enjoy vegetables, fruits, mostly whole grains and cereals, beans, herbs and spices, peanuts and nuts, and healthy tubers like sweet potatoes. These are the core African Heritage foods to shop for, prepare, and eat most often.

3. Favor Fish. For a source of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, enjoy tuna, mackerel, and salmon. Sardines and other small, bony fish are rich sources of calcium and vitamin D. Enjoy them grilled, broiled, or lightly pan cooked in water and a tiny bit of oil.

4. Use Healthy Oils. Use small amounts of healthy oils, like sesame or olive oil for dressings, and canola, red palm oil, or extra virgin coconut oil for cooking.

5. Lessen Animal Protein. Eat eggs, poultry, and other meats moderately, in small portions, or use as garnishes for other dishes.

6. Downplay Dairy. Consume dairy in small portions, and if you are lactose intolerant, enjoy other calcium-rich foods like greens , beans , and almonds.

7. Slow the Sweets. at the top of the pyramid, are foods to eat less often , limiting them to once a week or at special meals.

8. Hydration is Key. Drink plenty of water throughout the day. If you drink alcohol, limit it to one glass per day for women, two for men.


Sweet Potato Peanut Stew, or Mafe

Mafe, or Groundnut Stew, is common throughout West and Central Africa. This traditional stew can feature meat, vegetables, or seafood, and it is always based on a savory sauce made from peanut butter and tomatoes. This Mafe recipe is featured recipes in our A Taste of African Heritage cooking program and it centers around a much loved African heritage food — the sweet potato.

Ingredients: 

2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil 
1 medium-size yellow onion, diced 
2 garlic cloves, minced 
1 large sweet potato, chopped into medium-size cubes 
2 large carrots, cut into thin rounds 
2 green zucchini, cut into thin half-rounds 
1 small can (15oz) of diced tomatoes, no salt added 
2 cups water
1 teaspoon or small cube of vegetable bullion powder 
1 tablespoon Berbere spice 
1/4 cup natural peanut butter 
3 sprigs of fresh thyme, minced, or 1 teaspoon dried thyme 
Sea salt to taste 

Instructions: 

1. Heat the oil in one of the soup pots on medium heat and sauté the onion and garlic until translucent (3-4 minutes). 

2. While the onions and garlic cook, chop up the sweet potato, carrots, and zucchini. 

3. Add sweet potato and vegetables to the pot; saute for 3-4 minutes. 

4. Add the diced tomatoes, water, bullion, and Berbere spice, and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer for 10 minutes. 

5. After 10 minutes, add the peanut butter and the thyme to the stew. Let it cook, covered, for another 3-5 minutes. 

6. Salt to taste, serve and enjoy.

Nutritional Analysis: Calories: 127, Fat: 5g, Saturated Fat: 1g, Sodium: 168mg, Carbohydrate: 20g, Fiber: 4g, Sugars: 8g, Protein: 4g

 

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