Soul food gets its own pyramid Nutrition: Dietitians create a unique, healthful eating guide to macaroni, ham hocks, greens and other traditional African-American favorites.


Food memories can be the sweetest of all, taking you back to childhood with each fabulous forkful.

All it takes is a taste of Mama's fried chicken or sweet potato pie and soon you'll be transported back in time to Sunday dinners around the kitchen table. Or take a bite of Hoppin' John, a spicy dish of rice and black-eyed peas, and you'll remember New Years' celebrations from years ago.

But for many people, the food that brings back memories of home -- whether it's Hoppin' John, corn pudding, chitlins, red beans and ham hocks, gumbo or banana pudding -- is delicious, delightful and really fattening.

Unfortunately for African-Americans, that traditional Southern food -- which migrated north in the 1940s, '50s and '60s with millions of African-American is high in fat and cholesterol.

And the traditional African-American diet is one of the reasons that the nation's black population has high rates of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and arthritis.

For dietitians, both black and white, it's been hard to help African-Americans who grew up on this diet -- without asking them to give up the foods that are part of their heritage.

That's why three Florida dietitians have banded together, pooled their money and created a free flier called "The soul food pyramid."

Ethnic specifics

Modeled on the USDA Food Guide Pyramid, which debuted in 1992, the soul food pyramid uses the same dietary guidelines but is tailored to fit the African-American diet. For instance, the pyramid shows where African-American favorites -- such as chitlins, sausage, bacon and pork rinds -- fall into the pyramid.

The pyramid was the brainchild of Fabiola Gaines, Roniece Weaver and Ellareetha Carson, all registered dietitians who have formed Hebni (pronounced "ebony") Nutrition Consultants, a nonprofit organization.

"Fabiola was a strong advocate for doing this pyramid," Weaver said. "She felt, as we did, that the generic USDA pyramid did its job but did not address ethnic diets."

So the three developed the soul food pyramid, pooled their money and had 20,000 copies printed. Since the fliers were printed last fall, they've been distributing the pyramid material when they do lectures and on weekends, when the three dietitians visit church functions, fairs and street festivals in the African-American community.

"We're just three sisters trying to do our part," said Gaines, a registered dietitian who works in Volusia County's public health unit. "Diet plays such a huge role in disease and disease prevention that we felt we needed to do something to help the community. For example, 3 million African-Americans have diabetes and 1.5 million don't know they're diabetic."

For Gaines and her two partners, this public-education project is a labor of love. Gaines, along with Weaver, a consultant dietitian with a Sanford food company, and Carson, a senior public health nutritionist with the Department of Children and Families in Orlando, spend nights and weekends spreading the gospel of the low-fat, low-sodium diet.

An easy, everyday thing

They believe that using the pyramid regularly will help when trying to improve your eating habits.

"If you get it [the pyramid] and use it, it works for you," Weaver said. "Follow it as a guideline on the refrigerator. But if you just file it away and it doesn't become part of your everyday habits, you'll lose control."

Indeed, that's one reason dietitians believe the traditional USDA pyramid works. People can see, at a glance, whether their daily diet is out of whack. It's easy to note whether you're getting enough fruits and vegetables or too much meat.

"Indications are that 60 percent of the public now recognizes the pyramid and it's being used on more and more food packaging," said John Webster of the USDA's Center for Nutrition Policy. "We consider it a very effective tool for getting the message out for healthy eating."

Webster said the USDA doesn't mind when other groups co-opt the pyramid to illustrate an ethnic group's diet, as long as the scientific recommendations are based on the latest nutritional science.

In the soul food pyramid, the recommendations are much the same, but an accompanying chart includes suggested servings -- and warns what foods should be avoided or eaten only periodically.

But the most shocking revelation for many people has been the discovery that many of their favorite soul food "meats" aren't considered meats but fats. "My clients are amazed by the fat group," Carson said. "That includes chitlins, ham hocks, sausage, pigs' feet. These foods are staples for many African-American families, but they are very fatty."

Gaines, Weaver and Carson aren't suggesting that you never eat chitlins again. Instead, they want people to consider chitlins or sausage an occasional treat. "Cut back to chitlins once a month," Gaines said, "not once a week."

"We believe tradition is important," Weaver said. "We're not asking African-Americans to start eating like Italians. This dietary tradition goes back to slavery. But we can continue to eat soul food if we eat 'heart-healthy' soul food."

To help people make the leap to healthful eating, Gaines, Weaver and Carson have developed low-fat recipes for traditional soul-food favorites: collard greens prepared without meat, sugar-free banana pudding and sugar-free sweet potato pie. There's low-fat poundcake too.

"Low-fat, no-fat, sugar-free: We know those words are frightening and discouraging," Gaines said. "It's important that the food tastes good, so we've developed recipes and tested them at community functions."

For instance, after they developed the recipe for meatless collard greens, they brought samples for 200 African-American women participating in a health seminar. They've served a heart-healthy lunch to senior citizens and cooked California tacos with low-fat tortilla chips, low-sodium taco mix and ground turkey at an elementary school -- and the students asked for copies of the recipe. At a street festival, they gave passers-by samples of regular poundcake and lower-fat poundcake -- and most couldn't tell the difference.

Getting your family to eat sugar-free banana pudding instead of the same old version may not be that difficult, the three dietitians say.

If you're the family cook, the dietitians suggest that you try the recipes on your family without telling them they're eating low-fat food. Odds are, they won't know the difference.

Besides, you can change the way you eat -- and still eat dishes you like. "Macaroni and cheese is a food that can be made very high in fat," Carson said, "but you can also make it using low-fat cheeses."

If you have children, Gaines, Weaver and Carson suggest instilling good eating habits early. "In trying to change the population, we have to start with the children," Gaines said. "I see so many obese children. If we could start with elementary children, they could foster change at home."

Spreading the word

To help foster that change, they're handing out free copies of their Soul Food Pyramid. But ideally, they'd like to find a corporate sponsor that would pay the costs of printing -- and in exchange have its corporate logo on the handouts.

"Nothing like this [pyramid] exists anywhere," said Weaver. "The American Dietetic Association doesn't have any material that addresses the African-American diet. And all we want to do is get this information out to the public."

They may be succeeding. They're starting to get inquiries from dietitians around the U.S. who are interested in using the handouts in public-education courses.

And now the National Cancer Institute is planning to use the Soul Food Pyramid on its 5-A-Day Web site. Gaines, Weaver and Carson are busily putting together their own Web page, which will feature recipes and the pyramid.

"All we want to do is get this out to the public," said Weaver, "so we're excited. We hope word will spread."

Pub Date: 2/26/97

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