Oldways African Heritage Pyramid

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African Heritage DIET PYRAMID

The ancestors of African Americans brought many wonderful food traditions to parts of the Caribbean, South America, and the southern states of the U.S. Maybe these were your great, great, great grandparents. Over the generations, many of these food traditions have been lost, with the influences of modern American eating habits. And our health has suffered because of this loss. 

As the African Heritage Diet Pyramid illustrates, this diet is based on whole, fresh plant foods like colorful fruits and vegetables, especially leafy greens; tubers like yams and sweet potatoes; beans of all kinds; nuts and peanuts; rice, flatbreads and other grain foods, especially whole grains; healthy oils; homemade sauces and marinades of herbs and spices; fish, eggs, poultry and yogurt. It’s naturally low in processed sugar, unhealthy types of fats, and sodium, and includes only small amounts of meats and sweets.

Whether we look to Virginia or Jamaica, Nigeria or Brazil, we find this overall healthy eating pattern shared by all of their culinary histories, with distinct foods featured by each region. It is this “big picture” framework of the African Heritage Diet Pyramid that all people can use to claim their best health. We invite you to take a new look at your heritage and your health, and to enjoy the foods, and the ways of cooking and eating, that are a part of your healthy heritage.

Getting Started with the African Heritage Diet: 10 Steps

The African Heritage Diet features familiar foods prepared in easy and affordable ways. Getting started with the African Heritage Diet couldn’t be simpler. Try anyone of these steps… and then another… and another!

  1. Boost Flavor With Spice. Curries, peppers, coconut, fresh herbs, garlic, onions, fresh lemon, and all spices are low-sodium ways to add incredible flavors to grains, beans, vegetables, and seafood. Try a different herb every week for a touch of African heritage. 
  2. Make Vegetables the Star of Your Plate. Steamed, sautéed, roasted, grilled or raw, enjoy veggies like okra, cabbage, green beans, or eggplant in larger portions than the other parts of your meal. If you’re grabbing seconds, go for the veggies! 
  3. Change the Way You Think About Meat. Use lean, healthy meats in smaller amounts for flavor. Replace ham-hocks with smoked turkey or fish, or pile on the herbs and spices instead! With the zesty flavors of African heritage, you may not even notice the meat’s not there. We’ve got plenty of vegetarian recipes and a guide to help you on the Oldways website. 
  4. Rice and Beans
    Make Rice & Beans Your New Staple. Fiber-filled Rice-and-Beans is a favorite meal all over the world. Add African heritage whole grains like millet, sorghum and teff to your soups, or partner them with peas. 
  5. Enjoy Mashes & Medleys. Bake or boil sweet potatoes, yams and potatoes or mash them with eggplants, beans, grains, onions and seasonings. One-Pot Cooking lets flavors sing together! Let okra, corn and tomatoes collide in a “Mix Up,” or add extra color and flavor to your greens with purple cabbage and leeks. 
  6. Find Real Foods Everywhere. At a corner store, buy peanuts or fruit; at a lunch buffet, load up your plate with salad, veggies, fruit, and beans. Look to African heritage whole foods, in their natural state, to crowd out processed and packaged “convenience foods.” 
  7. Family Support & Food Fellowship. Food is meant to be shared, and so is good health. Think of your dinner table as a “healing table,” a place where people come to share beautiful, fresh foods and reinforce a long, happy and healthy life. 
  8. Make Room for Celebration Foods. We all have special foods that have always been in our families. Some of these foods may fall outside the guidelines of the African Heritage Pyramid. Save these foods of meaning and memory for special occasions. Enjoy them infrequently, but when you do have them, enjoy them whole-heartedly! 
  9. Jazz Up Fruits for Dessert. Fresh or frozen fruits like melons, peaches, berries, and mangos—plain or sprinkled with chopped nuts or coconut—add a sweet taste of satisfaction at the end of a meal. 
  10. Drink to Your Health. A splash of flavor can make water your go-to drink. Add crushed fruits or small amounts of 100% fruit juice to water or sparkling water to make refreshing “ades” (like lemonade!). Iced tea with a little honey is another refreshing alternative to soda and other highly sugared drinks.

African Heritage 101 Brochure

Learn more about the health benefits and the “how-to” of this exciting way to claim health through heritage. Check out our straightforward resource, Welcome to the African Heritage Diet. This trifold brochure, available either as a downloadable PDF or in hard copy, includes the 10 simple steps above, plus more – to get you started eating the African Heritage Way!

Download African Heritage Diet 101 (English)
Download African Heritage Diet 101 (French)

To purchase hard copies of the English brochure, please visit our Oldways store.

Foods & Flavors of the African Heritage Diet

From Senegal to Brazil to Savannah, GA, these foods can be found in the African heritage tradition. Check out our Diaspora Food Glossary if you’d like to learn more about many of these foods.

Click on the list of foods below to download a PDF.

Common Foods of African Heritage

Plates of Expression

To put the African Heritage Diet Pyramid on the plate, we have compiled a group of 12 Plates of Expression with the help of African Heritage culinary scholar Jessica Harris. These dishes are both the culinary expressions of the Pyramid and the cultural expressions of each of the four distinct regions of African Heritage.  

The plates below illustrate, from left to right,  Western & Central Africa (African Peanut Soup); South America (Rice & Beans, Avocado Salad); The Caribbean (Rice, Beans, Spinach, Papaya); and the American South (Hoppin’ John, Collards, Cornbread). We invite you to see the entire collection of Plates of Expression

African Peanut Soup
Black Beans and Brown Rice
Brown Rice and Red Beans
Hoppin John

African Heritage Diet Supports Good Health

The diseases we know today, like diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and obesity, were much less common with traditional diets in earlier times. Scientific studies show that conditions like these skyrocket as traditional diets are left behind. The African Heritage Diet Pyramid is based on scientific research that shows eating like your ancestors can help:

  • Lower your risk of heart disease, high bloodpressure, and stroke
  • Avoid or help treat diabetes 
  • Fight certain cancers and many chronic diseases 
  • Reduce asthma, glaucoma, and kidney disease
  • Nurture healthy babies
  • Achieve a healthy weight and avoid obesity
  • Reduce depression… and more!

African Americans are at higher risk for many chronic diseases compared to other Americans. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, African Americans are 29% more likely to die of all causes than Americans as a whole, and they make 4.5 times as many emergency-room visits for asthma attacks. Various studies have also shown that African Americans are 1.4 to 2.2 times more likely to have diabetes than whites, and have higher rates of obesity.

Diet is in many cases a prominent factor in chronic diseases like these. The “Southern Diet” – characterized by researchers at the University of Alabama – Birmingham as heavy in fried foods, processed meats and heavily-sweetened beverages – is often seen as the “traditional” diet for many African Americans. But in fact, a healthier, more solidly traditional model can be found by looking to the foods brought to the New World by Africans, along with those they adopted here. In truth, African Americans on average eat more leafy green vegetables than other Americans, and more legumes like black-eyed peas. By starting with these healthy habits and looking to Oldways’ African Heritage & Health Pyramid for additional inspiration, African Americans can take pride in a way of eating that uniquely reflects the wisdom of their ancestors.

Check out our Health Studies page to learn more about how traditional African heritage diets and foods support better health.

African Diaspora Cultures

African Diaspora may be a new term for many people. We don’t hear it used very often in conversation or writing. African Diaspora is the term commonly used to describe the mass dispersion of peoples from Africa during the Transatlantic Slave Trades, from the 1500s to the 1800s. This Diaspora took millions of people from Western and Central Africa to different regions throughout the Americas and the Caribbean.

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These African ancestors landed in regions that featured different local foods and cuisines, as well as other cultural influences, that shaped their unique cooking styles. The overall pattern of a plant-based, colorful diet based on vegetables, fruits, tubers and grains, nuts, healthy oils and seafood (where available) was shared throughout these four regions, but their cultural distinctions have reason to be celebrated. Their tastes can be shared and tried by people everywhere.

Here is a brief description of the four healthy regional diets of African Heritage. See the differences and similarities throughout:

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African

Africa is home to leafy greens, root vegetables, mashed tubers and beans, and many different plant crops across its lands. In Central and Western Africa, traditional meals were often based on hearty vegetable soups and stews, full of spices and aromas, poured over boiled and mashed tubers or grains. In Eastern Africa, whole grains and vegetables are the main features of traditional meals, especially cabbage, kale and maize (cornmeal). In the Horn of Africa, where Ethiopia and Somalia are found, traditional meals are based on flat breads like injera (made out of teff, sorghum or whole wheat) and beans blended with spices, like lentils, fava beans and chickpeas. Today, many meals in the Horn are still prepared in halal style meaning that they include no pork, no alcohol, and meat only from animals who have died on their own. Across Africa, couscous, sorghum, millet and rice were enjoyed as the bases of meals, or as porridges and sides. Watermelon and okra are both native to Africa, and many believe that cucumbers are too. Beans were eaten in abundance everywhere, especially black-eyed peas, which were often pounded into a powder for tasty bean pastes seared as fritters.

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African American

African American cuisine has been called “food to fall in love with.” Much of early African American cooking was influenced by both French and Spanish cuisines, and intertwined with Southern cooking to co-brand some of its major staples. The majority of traditional African American foods came straight from the garden. Cabbage, okra, tomatoes, peppers, and greens were abundant, including dandelion, mustard, collards, and turnip greens. Pickling vegetables was a popular way to preserve food; pickled beets, radish, cabbage, carrots, and cucumbers were enjoyed—and the list goes on! Louisiana’s Creole cooking has its roots in French, Spanish and Haitian cuisines, with a common base called “The Holy Trinity”: celery, onions and red bell peppers all equally chopped—which is at the heart of Louisiana’s popular Gumbo soup. Traditional Low Country cooking, from South Carolina and Georgia’s coast, features oysters, crabs, shrimp, sweet potatoes, Hoppin’ John, and rice.

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Afro-Caribbean

The West Indies and Caribbean Islands bring tropical accents and various seafoods to the African Heritage Diet Pyramid. Approximately 23 million people of African descent live in the Caribbean. Here, we find French, African, and Spanish culinary influences. Surrounded by ocean, traditional African-Caribbean fare included a variety of seafood, like salt fish and conch; tropical fruits, like papaya and guava; rice and peas dishes, typically featuring pigeon peas or red beans. Coconut milk, breadfruit, callaloo, yams, plantains, annatto and pumpkins are all found in the Caribbean islands. In the southern parts of the Caribbean, roti is a popular flatbread, primarily made from whole wheat flour, that can be filled with curried vegetables and shrimp, or bean dishes, as a warm, soft roll-up.

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Afro-South American

There are an estimated 100 million people of African descent living in South America, with a large majority in Brazil. The same African Heritage staple-dishes are found here: soups and stews are very popular, as are rice and beans, and tubers like yucca and cassava. Okra, peanuts, squashes and plantains appear on many plates, as do fruits and fruit juices like mangoes and guava. A few favorite ingredients are red snapper, avocado, cilantro, and tapioca. Native American roots are seen in their corn/maize use, and their tamales that combine peas, carrots, potatoes, rice, and various spices as fillings. Moqueca Baiana is a popular traditional dish of Brazil. It is a seafood stew with prominent African roots made using palm oil, coconut milk, shrimp and crab, onions, garlic, peppers, tomatoes, and cilantro.