It’s Not Soul Food: Other Factors Fuel Chronic Disease Among Black Women

by Lisa Branscomb

You’ve likely read about the article in the Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA) about the study revealing that Americans are fatter than ever and that African-American women lead the way with prevalence of obesity and associated chronic conditions. There is no shortage of scientific theories as to what’s different about Black women that puts us at risk.
I address only one (somewhat outdated) theory associated with this worrying trend—that soul food is a significant culprit. But wait, we actually eat less soul food now than we have in the past. By soul food, I mean the typical Sunday supper fare at Mama ’nem’s house. Many of us are spread out from our extended families all across the country, so we don’t get together for large traditional meals as much. And how many of us have the time to fry chicken from scratch and make homemade baked macaroni and cheese after work and activities? Not many. So you can safely say that many of us generally don’t eat heavy delicious comfort soul food on any kind of a regular basis.

In the 1980s, there were numerous adaptations to soul food aimed at helping us get and stay healthy. Remember when women were raving on the Oprah Winfrey show about cornflake baked chicken to replace fried chicken? Or turkey everything? Or the proselytizing of veganism and vegetarianism? Or my all-time worst pet peeve, substituting applesauce for butter in baked goods? Despite all of that, things only got worse. This was because of the rise of two main contributors: convenience food and misinformation.

Convenience Food

We are busy. If you work outside the home, which most of us do, saving time had to become imperative in our workaday lives. This greatly increased the number of times per week that we ended up in the drive thru of a fast food restaurant, buying worthless junk food.

But not only that, even home cooking became abbreviated. Instead of eating homemade cornbread, biscuits or beans and rice, we cut corners by buying them in boxes and making Rachael Ray (crackers and ketchup-type) recipes. Instead of cooking some fried chicken and macaroni and cheese from scratch, we resorted to getting it from some chain chicken joint. All of this led to too much sugar, salt, trans fats and other dubious ingredients that contributed to our declining health.

When you really look at it closely, not only is convenience not health promoting, but convenience also is not even all that convenient. The weight loss industrial complex greatly exaggerates how much time and effort it takes to prepare fresh, whole healthy food for your family. For example, big food, like the Quaker Oats Company (which is owned by Pepsico) will have you believe that throwing on a pot of Rice a Roni is a hundred times easier than making your own spiced rice pilaf. It’s not. Trust me. Homemade spiced rice pilaf is doable, especially with a few good tools and a little preparation.

Furthermore, it is helpful to have a small repertoire of fresh meals that you can whip up quickly in a pinch. And simple can be both healthy and impressive with just a little creativity with herbs and spices. Once you no longer believe the hype about how gruelling and time consuming it is to cook from scratch, you’ll realize that it’s less about more effort and more about a different skill. The part of healthy living that is almost always overlooked, because it’s not hyped on by the media to sell something, is to simplify. Sometimes convenience means cutting out some unnecessary activities instead of relying on fast food. Your kids may not need to play four sports every season. You could also eliminate some less important obligations to allow more time for healthy eating.


As things deteriorated we got some bad advice from the media, the weight loss industrial complex and even some medical professionals who started doling out faulty advice. First it was all fat is bad! Eat low fat! What followed was a profusion of low-fat fake foods full of sugar and starchy fillers that do more harm than natural fats. Low-fat eating is not satisfying. So while we were busy struggling on our low-fat diets, we were inadvertently overdosing on carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are not inherently bad, but eating highly-processed carbohydrates at every single meal creates a major imbalance (way too many carbohydrates), which causes health problems.

Part of the saturated fat and cholesterol hating led some people to take things too far by becoming strict vegans or vegetarians. Going vegan or vegetarian may very well have helped some people regain their health, just because it’s a more conscious way of eating, and that’s great. But becoming a strict vegan and vegetarian can be complicated. And if you don’t know what you’re doing, it can surely backfire. So despite all the hype, veganism and vegetarianism turned out to not be the magical elixir after all. But note I am all down with vegan and vegetarian recipes that don’t use fake substitutions. Lots of plant-based foods are extremely instrumental for healthy eating but restriction is completely unnecessary.

Meat can be problematic but not because of the fact that it’s meat or because it contains saturated fat. Meat is unhealthy when it’s low-quality processed meat or factory-raised meat because of the chronic inflammation it perpetuates, and chronic inflammation is the precursor for obesity and almost all chronic disease. For example, hot dogs, cold cuts, bacon and sausage that are preserved with added nitrates or nitrates can become highly carcinogenic when heated at high temperatures and a compound called nitrosamine is formed. Factory (conventionally) farmed animals are fed grains which are not a part of their natural diets and make them sick. So the factories feed them antibiotics to help them grow faster and to try and prevent illness from the grains, stress and unsanitary conditions they live their lives in. This is true for dairy animals as well. Conventional dairy cows often (but decreasingly so) are raised on bovine growth hormone, RBgH, to make them sexually mature faster (huge red flag there) and produce more milk. RBgH is banned in the EU, Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Japan.

And then, there are always zealots that will turn almost any idea of healthy eating into an esoteric, almost supernatural undertaking. They can make you feel as though unless you harvest your own ancient heirloom variety wheat from your back yard and grind it yourself by hand, you’ll never be able to eat a piece of bread again in your life. That’s completely ridiculous and frustrates most of us so that we throw our hands up and eat any old thing.

It seems like it takes massive effort and vigilance (along with a PhD in science) to be able to sort out all of the legitimate scientific information from the hype, propaganda, and pseudoscience coming from all directions, but fortunately it doesn’t. It mainly just takes a little critical thinking and a sense of balance.

For example, if it sounds too good to be true–like a superfood that cures all your ailments‒it probably is. Always remember that there is no food that contains all the nutrients. So those expensive goji and acai berries’ benefits are really nothing but media buzz.

Similarly, when you hear or read about some foods being bad, poison, or toxic don’t fall for it. Right now sugar seems to be the dietary scapegoat that fat once was. I have read entire books about how sugar will kill you if you eat (even one crystal of) it. The truth is, anything will kill you if you consume too much, even water! It is counterproductive to get into the habit of judging food as “good” and “bad” as it often leads to orthorexia or fundamentalist nutriligion. Instead, acknowledge that some foods are better enjoyed less often than others. It’s true that excessive sugar is a scourge of the standard American diet, but having a slice of your grandma’s sweet potato pie every now and then will not send you over the edge. I promise.

There’s no way that we African-American women are getting fatter and sicker because we eat too much soul food. Instead, it’s this culture of incessant busy-ness and the lack of reliable information causing the problems. Not to oversimplify as there are many more factors that affect us as a group such as stress, income, lack of access to quality health care, etc. But with some critical thinking and the permission to just relax about food, we can begin to reverse this trend right now.

Photo: Shutterstock

LifeBliss Lisa (Lisa Branscomb, J.D.), founder of LifeBliss Solutions, is a certified food and lifestyle coach specializing in diabetes prevention and an experienced home chef. She helps busy women who love food live deliciously in the Diet Free Zone.

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