What Is The African Heritage Diet?
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. Over the generations, many of these food traditions have been lost with the inﬂuences of modern American eating habits. 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. Starting at the base of the pyramid, you’ll ﬁnd:
- Foods to enjoy every day: 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.
- Foods to eat a few times each week, or in moderation: healthy oils; homemade sauces and marinades of herbs and spices; ﬁsh, eggs, poultry and yogurt.
- Foods to save for special occastions: meats and sweets.
How To Get Started
Oldways also oﬀers a wealth of online health information and recipes. Continue reading below to get started on the African Heritage Diet. Don’t forget to check out Oldways’ A Taste of African Heritage program, which brings these principles to life through hands-on cooking classes and events!
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 any one of these steps… and then another… and another. For more inspiration, check out our free African recipes or our A Taste of African Heritage cooking classes!
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
Take (or Teach!) African Heritage Diet Cooking Classes
Ready to get started in the kitchen? Learn more about the African Heritage Diet in our A Taste of African Heritage (ATOAH) cooking classes! Find a class near you in our class directory, or sign up for more information about becoming a teacher. Anyone can get certiﬁed to spread the word about this healthy and delicious lifestyle!
African Heritage 101 Brochure
The Welcome to the African Heritage Diet trifold brochure is a brief and easy-to-understand overview of the African Heritage Diet. It is a perfect way to learn more about the health beneﬁts and the “how-to’s” of the African Heritage Diet. This tri-fold brochure includes the African Heritage Diet pyramid, the 10 simple steps listed above, and more.
This popular handout for dietitians, medical oﬃces, health centers, and community organizations can be purchased from the 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.
Download a list of traditional African Heritage Diet foods.
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 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 blood pressure, 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.
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:
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.
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.
The West Indies and Caribbean Islands bring tropical accents and various seafood 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.
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.
The Faces of African Heritage
Learn more about the advisory committee of nutrition scientists, culinary historians, and experts in African diasporic health and history who helped develop the African Heritage Diet Pyramid in 2011.
Learn more about our A Taste of African Heritage Ambassadors, long-time partners from across the country who have been instrumental in helping the program grow.