Soul food is the traditional cuisine of African Americans (1).
Sometimes simply referred to as “Southern food,” soul food was carried to the North and rest of the United States by African Americans leaving the South during the Great Migration of the early to mid-20th century.
Meals range from simple family dinners of rice and beans, fried chicken, and collard greens with ham hocks to tables loaded with candied yams, smothered pork chops, gumbo, black-eyed peas, macaroni and cheese, cornbread, sweet potato pie, and peach cobbler.
Soul food is an integral part of Black food culture and often evokes strong feelings of home, family, and togetherness.
This article explains the basics of soul food, explores whether it’s healthy, and provides simple tips to boost the nutrition of soul food dishes.
The Southern diet, which is often associated with soul food, contains organ meats, processed meats, eggs, fried foods, added fats, and sweetened beverages.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), African Americans ages 18–49 are twice as likely to die from heart disease as white Americans. Black Americans ages 35–54 also have a 50% higher likelihood of high blood pressure than white Americans (4).
While social and economic disparities play a significant role in these disproportionate disease rates, dietary choices may also contribute.
However, this doesn’t mean that all soul food is unhealthy. Nutrient-rich dishes and leafy green vegetables are also staples of soul food.
Many items commonly associated with soul food are linked to an increased risk of several illnesses, including heart disease. Yet, soul food can be made much healthier by emphasizing the tradition’s nutritious dishes.
Soul food embodies numerous legacies, traditions, and practices passed down from generation to generation.
Creating a healthier soul food plate does not mean abandoning this rich heritage.
In fact, making small modifications to recipes and cooking methods may help boost dishes’ nutrient profiles while maintaining flavor, richness, and cultural traditions.
Choose more plant-based foods
In traditional societies, meat — when consumed at all — was eaten in very small quantities and often as a seasoning (7).
Diets that include plenty of plant foods are associated with more moderate body weights and decreased disease risk (5).
Furthermore, a meta-analysis in people who ate leafy green and cruciferous vegetables, such as collard greens, kale, turnip greens, and cabbage, indicated a 15.8% reduced risk of heart disease, compared with a control group (8).
Tips to increase your intake of plant foods
- Make sure half of your plate comprises non-starchy vegetables, such as greens, eggplant, okra, carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers, and turnips.
- Swap out meat for legumes, nuts, or seeds as your main protein source. Examples of these plant foods include lentils, beans, peanuts, and black-eyed peas.
- Diversify your diet by eating roots and tubers, such as sweet potato, taro, plantain, and pumpkin.
- Snack on raw veggies, nuts, and seeds instead of high fat, high sugar options like chips and cookies.
- Aim for at least two colorful plant-based foods on each plate — for example, collard greens and roasted pumpkin or an apple with a handful of nuts.
Favor whole grains
Whole grains are the entire grain, including the bran, germ, and endosperm. They may play a role in weight management, gut health, and the prevention of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and even colorectal, pancreatic, and stomach cancers (10).
Examples of whole grains are whole wheat, brown rice, oats, sorghum, millet, fonio, and barley.
Some soul food entrées like macaroni and cheese, cornbread, and rice dishes are made from refined grains, which have had their nutrient-dense bran and germ removed during processing and are thus not as nutritious as their whole grain counterparts.
Tips to enjoy more whole grains
- Replace refined grains with their whole grain counterparts. For example, choose whole wheat flour instead of white flour or whole grain cornmeal instead of degerminated.
- Use brown rice, sorghum, millet, or fonio in place of white rice.
- When baking, swap refined flour with whole grain flours like teff, whole wheat, and sorghum flours.
- Choose packaged foods in which whole grains are the first or second item on the ingredient list.
Season with veggies, herbs, and spices
In addition to containing high sodium processed meats like ham hocks, soul food often uses seasoned salt, garlic salt, and cajun seasoning. These foods and spices contribute to the overall amount of sodium you consume.
Evidence suggests that African Americans are more sensitive to the blood-pressure-lowering effects of decreased salt intake. Reducing your dietary sodium intake may result in a 4–8 mmHg reduction in systolic blood pressure — the top number on a reading (11).
Seasoning foods with aromatic veggies like onions, garlic, and celery, as well as herbs and spices, not only reduces sodium content but also boosts the antioxidant content and flavor (13).
Tips to replace salt
- Experiment with bold, low sodium spices, such as Ethiopian berbere or Tunisian harissa.
- Use herbs and spices instead of salt. Add fresh herbs toward the end of cooking and dry herbs at the start.
- Buy fresh, frozen, or salt-free canned vegetables, or rinse high sodium canned vegetables before using.
- Avoid salting your meal at the table, especially before tasting it.
- Make your own seasoning blend by mixing:
Change your cooking methods
Cooking methods affect both the nutrient composition of a meal and disease risk.
While boiling and stewing are healthy alternatives for cooking meats, grains, and vegetables, they may result in a loss of nutrients like vitamin C, lutein, and beta carotene (19).
If you opt for boiling or stewing, you can still glean some of the lost nutrients by adding the nutrient-rich liquid — or potlikker — into other dishes.
Tips for healthy cooking methods
- Trim away any visible fat and remove any charred parts of foods before eating.
- When cooking starchy foods, aim for a golden brown color rather than a dark brown color or heavily crisped exterior.
- Marinate meats in citrus fruits or juices, vinegar, or onions, herbs, and spices.
- Steam, sauté, stir-fry, or blanch vegetables instead of frying them.
- If you stew vegetables, use the nutrient-rich, leftover potlikker as a gravy or dipping sauce for cornbread. You can also incorporate this liquid into other dishes.
- Precook meats in the microwave and finish them on the grill.
- Ditch the deep fryer and recreate favorite recipes by oven-frying or using an air fryer.
- If you must deep-fry foods, choose an oil with a high smoke point, such as canola, peanut, or avocado oil.
Make healthy swaps
Modifying recipes by substituting healthier ingredients for high fat, high calorie, high sodium options is an effective way to honor family traditions without giving up on flavor.
Simple swap ideas
- Choose heart-healthy oils like olive, peanut, or canola oils instead of solid fats, such as lard, which are high in saturated fat.
- Opt for reduced fat cheese and reduced fat or nonfat milk instead of full fat cheeses and milk.
- In greens and other dishes, replace high sodium, high fat meats like ham hocks with smoked, skinless turkey breast.
- Ditch the marshmallows or brown sugar on yams for cinnamon, vanilla, or a splash of orange juice.
- Marinate meats and poultry in herbs and spices instead of smothering them in gravy.
- Lighten mayonnaise by mixing half of it with plain nonfat Greek yogurt.
- Substitute lard or butter in baked desserts with fruit purées like applesauce.
Food is deeply intertwined with celebration, family, emotion, legacy, and identity.
On occasion, give yourself permission to enjoy your favorite dishes.
In situations with multiple favorite dishes, watch your portion sizes. A good rule of thumb is to make non-starchy veggies half of your plate, starches a quarter of your plate, and protein sources the last quarter of your plate.
You can increase the nutrient content of soul food by favoring nutrient-rich dishes, swapping out unhealthy ingredients for healthy ones, choosing cooking methods other than frying, cutting back on salt, and eating more whole grains and plant foods.