Healthful Heritage Culinary historian and cookbook author Jessica Harris says the traditional African diet is largely vegetarian. “There wasn’t a lot of animal protein,” she says. “Dried or smoked fish was found in riverine or ocean areas, and wild game was used as a seasoning unless there was some degree of feasting or festivity.”
Across Africa, a variety of whole grains and starchy vegetables serve as the base for meals. “Millet and sorghum are found in the area around Mali; rice in Senegal, Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone,” Harris says. “Further south in Ghana and the Ivory Coast you find yams.
“The Transatlantic Slave Trade was one of the major ways the food of Africa showed up in various inflections on the plate” throughout the diaspora, says Harris, also a member of Oldways’ advisory board. Enslaved Africans in the Americas cooked and ate in ways that were familiar to them, making do—and often making magic—with ingredients they found around them. In the southern United States, they were given some provisions such as cornmeal, beans, or a bit of pork, but Harris says, “They had to supplement their diet with foraging or growing their own food.” Cabbage, okra, tomatoes, peppers, and a variety of greens were abundant, so they were added to the pot.
“Because of the climate in the Caribbean, they had more opportunity to grow things that were closer to Africa, like yams,” Harris continues. The Caribbean diet included tropical fruits like papaya and guava as well as rice and pigeon peas. In South America, tubers such as yucca and cassava as well as okra, peanuts, and plantains were part of the plate.
The result: a varied culinary legacy based on African retentions and the creative resourcefulness of Africans replanted in the Americas—all of which is reflected in the African Heritage Diet Pyramid that Oldways and its advisory team of experts introduced in November 2011.
Baer-Sinnott describes the pyramid as “an evidence-based practical tool designed to help African Americans reframe their daily diets based on the healthful eating patterns of their ancestors.”
As in other pyramids, the African Heritage Diet Pyramid illustrates which foods should be eaten in abundance and those that should be eaten less frequently. Based on staples from the African diaspora, the African Heritage Diet promotes beans and peas, whole grains, fruits, peanuts and nuts, vegetables, and tubers. Because of their nutritional benefit and overwhelming appearance throughout the diaspora, greens have been placed in a category all their own.
The pyramid suggests fish and seafood be added to the plate at least two times per week as a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids that can help lower blood pressure and protect against heart disease. Like other traditional heritage diets, this pyramid suggest that eggs, poultry, and other meats be eaten in small portions or used to garnish other dishes.
Herbs and spices also are given a prominent position in the pyramid to promote the use of homemade sauces and to boost flavor without adding salt. Healthful oils and dairy also are encouraged in small quantities, and sweets top the pyramid as foods to eat only occasionally.
The result is a plant-based diet low in unhealthful fats, sugars, and sodium; high in nutrient-dense whole foods; and robust in flavor. It naturally mirrors medical recommendations such as the 2010 Dietary Guidelines while fully embracing African-based food ways that are centuries old.