Tanisha Gordon is a 37-year-old employee at an IT company in the Washington, D.C., area, and until recently, her diet was deeply saturated with fast food—but her doctor diagnosed her last year with pre-diabetes and prescribed her a CPAP machine to help her sleep through the night. So she told the Huffington Post that she began working with a nutritionist to clean up her diet. As a black woman, she said, she battled the perception that most of today’s healthy food is “white people food.”
“A lot of the time, when you go to restaurants now, they have these extravagant salads with all these different ingredients in it, like little walnuts and pickled onions—like the stuff Panera sells,” Gordon told HuffPost. “For me personally, that’s like a white person’s food. A lot of the mainstream stuff that’s advertised comes across as being for white people.”
Black restaurateur Dr. Baruch Ben-Yehudah told HuffPost “that white culture has taken the power to define all things good as white, and all things white as good. So that definition of healthy eating is not an accurate depiction of eating healthy.”
Charmaine Jones, a Washington D.C.-based dietitian who is black, penned a short paper earlier this year called “Do I Have to Eat Like White People?” that shared the dietary struggles of her clients, whom she describes as primarily low-income African-Americans on D.C. Medicaid.
The majority of her clients seek nutrition strategies to treat obesity, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease or high cholesterol, a set of challenges that are particularly prevalent in the black community. Gordon was one of her clients,, and over the course of a year, Gordon shed 60 pounds.
Jones describes “white people food” as salads, fruits, yogurts, cottage cheeses and lean meats—the standard low-fat, heart-healthy foods promoted by the U.S. Dietary Guidelines.
Erica Bright, another client of Jones, points out that the origins of Southern food took root at a time when it was necessary to cook with less-than-ideal ingredients. “Some people think all black people eat is chicken and collard greens, and that’s not necessarily true," Bright said. "However, out of utility and necessity, we ate a lot of that down South back in the day because that’s all that was available. It’s not like we didn’t know what carrots or Brussels sprouts were.”
Jones cites socioeconomic factors as one of the primary roadblocks preventing her clients from transitioning to a healthier diet, in part because her clients do the majority of their shopping in food deserts, which lack access to affordable, healthy foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables.
Ben-Yehudah agrees that soul food has been in need of a healthy makeover.
“Soul food is always greasier, it’s always saltier and it’s always sweeter, so those three elements that we don’t need more of in our diet are definitely found in more abundance in today’s soul food diet," he said. "I call it the Standard Black American diet, and it has created many of the health challenges that we have today because it’s void of nutrition, it’s full of toxins and it’s addictive.”