In 2011, I wrote a column about how, although it tastes so good, soul food can be unhealthy and lead to disease.
I reflected on why we eat “soul food.” It started during the slave trade. For slaves, eating was more about survival than perfecting culinary creations.
Slaves weren't concerned about calories, fat, sugar or salt.
My interest in why we (people of all colors and backgrounds) continue to eat foods saturated with the bad stuff doctors tell us to limit was sparked again by a documentary that aired on PBS last week.
The documentary, “Soul Food Junkies,” is one man's quest to unlock the clues of why we eat unhealthy foods despite knowing their dangers. One commentator in the film calls this “slave food.”
Soul food has its origins in Africa and the Caribbean.
In the United States, slave kitchen cooks' dishes evolved into the foundation of Southern fare. This is why people in the South enjoy greens, yams, black-eyed peas, cornbread, fried chicken and fatty cuts of pork.
“The hand of the African in the pot transformed the taste of the pot,” one woman said in the documentary.
But what people ate, how much they ate and how much physical activity they took part in centuries ago, even decades ago, is different than today.
Today, foods are processed with lots of salt, fat, sugar and artificial preservatives.
Today, people are much more likely to consume large servings and have a sedentary lifestyle — which invites disease.
Throughout the years, it's as though some people have come to expect disease to be a part of their life.
One woman in the documentary articulated it clearly.
“It's almost like, you eat. You get big. You go to college. You get your education. You get your diabetes. You get your high blood pressure and you die.”
Among the quests in the documentary was to find ways to reintroduce the old-school way of cooking — the soulful way grandma and grandpa cooked yet still maintained health.
Health advocates are encouraging us to bring back gardens so that today's soul food can include fresh ingredients.
Another topic in the documentary is people's unwillingness to accept change. In many families, recipes, food choices and cooking techniques have been passed down through generations.
Those in families who have a history of unhealthy eating who then try to include more vegetables and healthier foods often face opposition from their loved ones. They hear comments such as, “It (unhealthy food) used to be good enough for you.”
The director of the documentary, Byron Hurt, recalled his father saying just that after Hurt changed to a mostly plant-based diet void of pork and red meat. To elderly family members, adopting a vegetarian-type diet can represent a rejection of one's culture, your heritage.
But by making simple modifications, we can both honor our heritage of food and eat healthfully. Instead of frying chicken in grease, bake it in the oven. Instead of drenching vegetables in sugar, salt and butter, use healthy oils, herbs and spices. Instead of eating sugary deserts, opt for vitamin-packed fruits. And most importantly, flavor greens and other vegetables without resorting to ham hocks or salt pork.
“When you know better, you do better,” one man said.
Food is deeply personal, as noted in the film. People don't like to be told they are eating food that is bad for them. They already know that.
At the core of unhealthful eating are social determinants, which include a lack of access to good food. Government officials call it food deserts.
It's not enough to educate people about benefits of healthy living, without addressing the economic problems that keep people them from obtaining them. These problems also include not living in a safe environment and not having access to health care.
The problems of obesity and disease in the U.S. today are multifaceted. To begin solving these problems, we have to look at the past and open your eyes to what's happening in the present.
To see the film, go to http://video.pbs.org/video/2305721338.