How to Create a Healthy Soul Food Plate

By | July 2, 2021

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.

fresh okra, beans, tomatoes, corn, squash, and lentils on platters
Nadine Greeff/Stocksy United

Is soul food healthy?

The Southern diet, which is often associated with soul food, contains organ meats, processed meats, eggs, fried foods, added fats, and sweetened beverages.

This eating pattern is tied to an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, kidney disease, cancer, stroke, and mental decline (23).

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. RESOURCETRANSFORM: Health Equity

We believe in health equity—the equal opportunity for everyone to live their healthiest life. We are clarifying health inequities and creating a healthier world—for everyone.

A guide to maintaining food culture while promoting health

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

Traditional African diets are plant-based and included a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, such as leafy greens, okra, watermelon, whole grains, and black-eyed peas (56).

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).Read More

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