By Coshandra Dillard
The aromas of allspice, ginger, cayenne pepper, curry powder and cilantro filled up a room at the Tyler Metro Chamber of Commerce one Thursday evening.
C. Kalae Whitman, local businesswoman, explained the influence of traditional African food that includes theses spices before demonstrating a spicy chickpea recipe.
She already had cooked jollof rice, a West African dish that combines diced tomatoes, brown rice, olive oil, cabbage, carrots, onions, garlic and spices.
In Mrs. Whitman's pilot OldWays class, she teaches about the dietary implications of the African diaspora and how it influenced the American, Caribbean and South American diets.
While it's not a history or social studies class, she points out the significance of the transatlantic slave trade and how it affected the way many people in these three regions eat today.
The class, A Taste of African Heritage, and is offered through Oct. 18 at the Chamber. It is sponsored by Oldways Preservation Trust and Sankofa Natural Hair Care Products and Services, Mrs. Whitman's company.
The women in the class were intrigued by the history lesson as it related to diet and nutrition. They said they registered because they wanted to find alternative ways to eat healthier and feel better.
Denice Smith, of Tyler, has high blood pressure and just wanted to find a better way to eat without excess sodium. The class taught her how to focus more on nutrient-dense vegetables and grains and use herbs and spices.
“We were raised to eat with a great deal of meat, pork, especially pork,” she said, over a bowl of freshly cooked spicy chickpeas.
As an adult, Mrs. Whitman has adopted a mostly plant-based diet but it wasn't so easy to do when she was younger.
“It was something that I wanted to get into when I was younger, but my granddad was a cattle rancher,” she said. “They believed in eating meat, especially beef. I didn't have any control over it.”
Mrs. Whitman is not a strict vegan, as she allows herself to have some fish and meat occasionally. She said she feels better when she eats mostly vegetables, whole grains and fruits.
The six-week cooking class introduces participants to ancestral foods featured on the African Heritage Food Pyramid. This includes plant-based foods low in saturated fat, sugars and excess sodium. Leafy greens, couscous, plantains, sweet potatoes, black-eyed peas, nuts, coconut oil and shea butter are among the traditional foods of Africa, the Caribbean, South America and the American South.
The pyramid was developed by a committee of dietitians, physicians, cookbook authors and culinary historians. The African Heritage and other cultural pyramids promoted by Oldways, including Latino and Asian, are similar to the USDA's recommendations but the proportions of vegetables, legumes, fruits and whole grains to meat and dairy is greater. It's also comparable to the Harvard Public School of Health's Healthy Eating Plate, which was modeled after the USDA's My Plate. Oldways pyramids go a step further by showing specific foods that will provide the most nutrition and the frequency in which people should eat them. The African heritage diet pyramid has a great emphasis on leafy greens. Oldways officials said all pyramids serve as a guide for anyone.
“I think that all of the traditions that we've looked at, you can take away from all of the traditions,” said Sarah Dwyer, program manager for the African Heritage diet at Oldways.
“It's nice to have them visually. It's for all of us to share. That's the beauty of America. If we all could take a moment and look back, I think it would set us on a brand new track because we've really lost our food footing.”
She added, “Either you look around the world and see how people are doing things or you can look back in time and see how it was done in your own culture. The story and what it paints is a lot more positive. It's health-promoting.”
Ms. Dwyer said the African heritage way of eating is about more than soul food or “mystery mush,” and that it's not a fad diet.
Similar to the Mediterranean diet, it is plant-based, nutrient dense and heart-protective, she said. Ms. Dwyer noted that this way of eating is emphasized for a good reason.
Eating more plant-based foods gives people a chance to experiment with vegetables, which are versatile, Ms. Dwyer said. It also allows them to “rethink the plate,” not placing an emphasis on meat for every meal.
“People want to eat more vegetables or they've been told to eat more vegetables, more fruits, more plant-based foods but they're not sure how to make them,” she said.
One of Ms. Dwyer's duties has been to reach out to communities in promotion of the pyramid and so far, she said people have been receptive.
“They are a bit sick and tired of the diseases that they're seeing,” she said.
WESTERN DIET VERSUS THE 'OLD WAY'
Scientists have made correlations between the Western diet — which is typically high in saturated fats and empty carbohydrates while including little fruits and vegetables — and chronic illnesses such as heart disease, hypertension, diabetes and colorectal cancer.
According to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, diet-related diseases represent the primary cause of morbidity and mortality, affecting between 50 and 65 percent of the adult population.
In less industrialized countries, such diseases have been rare or nonexistent. However, as the spread of fast-food chains and staples of the Western diet spread throughout the world, so do these diseases.
African-Americans experience higher rates of chronic illnesses such as high blood pressure and diabetes. They are more likely to develop them at younger ages and suffer from complications, all which may be attributed to diet.
Oldways' message is simple: when people abandon the “old way” of eating, the instances of disease are more prevalent. The old way of eating, across all cultures, include eating fresh vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and limited amounts of meat, dairy and sweets.
Dr. David Shafer, a physician at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler, said the health problems in the African American community is comparable to that of Native Americans, who developed type 2 diabetes because they had to adapt to another way of eating.
Shafer said he isn't familiar with the Oldways pyramids, but at a glance, he said it seems to be a healthy diet because of the lack of processed foods and the promotion of foods that are filled with fiber and nutrients.
“Once you process foods, you're able to cram a lot of food into a small space,” he said. “These (pyramids) are probably a reasonable foundation. To me it looks like healthy eating.”
But Shafer noted that it may not be the least expensive way to eat, which is why there is an obesity problem today.
“Fast foods are popular because you can get a meal for five bucks and it'll be high-calories whereas it requires a lot more effort to eat healthy on that same amount of money,” he said. “It can be done but it requires some thought.”
He also noted that there needed to be more evidenced-based research about ancestral diets.
“The only way to know is to really objectively study it and groups of people over time,” Shafer said. “The so-called Mediterranean diet is just an observation of how the people in that part of the world have eaten.”
Ultimately, Shafer said, portion control and maintaining a practical diet is best.
“It all boils down to fewer calories,” he said. “There's a rule of thumb: don't make any changes to your diet that you can't sustain for the rest of your life.”