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Soul Food: How Black Americans Can Change Their Future History with Sodium by Learning from the Past

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Soul Food: How Black Americans Can Change Their Future History with Sodium by Learning from the Past

Tawanna Browne Smith, of Mom's Guide To Travel, is joining the Sodium Blog as a Guest Blogger today.

Salt killed my grandparents - at least that’s what I think. My maternal grandfather died when I was 16 years old from heart disease. He was 82. My grandmother died 10 years ago at 89 after her 8th stroke.


Although both of my grandparents lived long lives, I believe they would’ve lived longer and healthier if they had changed their diets.

Is heart disease hereditary or a byproduct of learned behavior?

When I was younger, I ate delicious, rich meals with my grandparents. They were both originally from the South. They’d cook dishes like fried chicken, peas and rice, macaroni and cheese, fried smothered pork chops, collard greens (the kind cooked with ham hocks), cornbread, pigs feet, pig ears, pork ribs, candied yams, and more.

We didn’t know that what we were eating was killing us softly.

Our family’s diet looked like a lot of other black American families’ diets - filled with meats, calories and salt.

Un-healthy foods - Image courtesy of Tawanna B. SmithDeath changes you.

When my grandfather died, it was really hard on me. He was the first person close to me that passed away from an illness.

When I returned to classes at my boarding school, surrounded by other cultures that didn’t eat the way my family ate, I realized a few things:

  1. We didn’t eat as healthy as we could have.
  2. Our food should have been consumed as an indulgence instead of as a normal occurrence
  3. I didn’t want to eat pork or red meat any longer. After watching how my family ate and what happened to my grandfather, I associated it with salt and heart disease.

A people’s diet dilemma

Black Americans suffer from a higher risk of heart disease that non-Hispanic white or Hispanic Americans in part because of our traditional diets, rooted in our slave history and socioeconomic circumstances. Because enslaved people were given the scraps, we made due.

We seasoned and cooked our food in such a way to make those scraps sing.

This food, known as soul food, is the heart of our people, our diets, our history. Unfortunately, too much soul food does little for the soul. Instead it has the potential to hurt our hearts.

Soul food can be high in sugar, salt, and saturated fat. Our taste buds may like it, but our bodies and hearts certainly don’t!

The responsibilities of caring for my children’s diets
As a mom, I am careful about the amount of salt and sugar I put in my family’s foods. My goal is to raise our children with taste buds that don’t have a preference for salt or sugar.

But it’s a challenge.

My husband, a Charleston native, loves seasoned salt in his food. I’m still working on him to use it sparingly when he cooks, substituting with other seasonings to enhance the meal’s flavor in a different way. Lifestyle changes are all about learning new habits and having access to healthier options.

We still love our traditional Southern meals. This is how we are changing our traditional relationship with sodium:

  1. We only indulge on holidays or family get-togethers.
  2. We abstain from pork and eat very little red meat.
  3. Instead of 3 desserts for holiday dinner, we have only one. And, we enjoy fruit as a sweet alternative.
  4. We use half as much sugar and half as much salt when we cook.

We can probably use even less. Unfortunately, the battle doesn’t stop at home.

We love to eat out. Restaurants give me cause for concern. I have no clue how much salt is being used to prepare the food. This is scary.

Every time we order a meal, we are rolling the dice with our health. The American Heart Association has some tips to help make healthier choices when dining out.

What can we do about it?

About three-quarters of the sodium in Americans’ diets comes from processed, prepackaged, and restaurant foods. But not all processed food has too much sodium - it’s important to check labels and watch for the Salty 6 * Source: Mattes, R.D., and D. Donnelly, 1991. Relative Contributions of Dietary Sodium Sources. Journals of the American College of Nutrition 10(4):383-393.

I am a big supporter of restaurants limiting the amount of salt they put in their foods.

Evidently, I’m not alone. From an independent survey conducted by the American Heart Association in 2013, over seven in ten consumers (72%) want restaurants to reduce sodium in their foods. A similar number (74%) desire less sodium in processed foods.

Where do you stand? Would you rather control the amount of salt added to your food or leave it up to the chef to decide? If not, here’s what you can do...

Let’s change our behaviors to reduce sodium intake.

Get educated. Educate your family members. Join the American Heart Association to advocate for less sodium in our food supply.

These are a few easy calls to action for you:

Please take at least one action to make changes in your behavior, then help us spread the word.

Tawanna Browne Smith, of Mom's Guide To Travel, is joining the Sodium Blog as a Guest Blogger today. You can connect with Tawanna on Twitter at @TawannaBSmith or via the Mom's Guide To Travel Facebook page.

The views, opinions and positions expressed within these guest posts are those of the author alone and do not represent those of The American Heart Association | American Stroke Association. The accuracy, completeness and validity of any statements made within this article are not guaranteed. We accept no liability for any errors, omissions or representations. The copyright of this content belongs to the author and any liability with regards to infringement of intellectual property rights remains with them. The American Heart Association’s blog is not intended to provide medical advice or treatment. Only your healthcare provider can provide that. The American Heart Association recommends that you consult your healthcare provider regarding your personal health matters. If you think you are having a heart attack, stroke or another emergency, please call 911 immediately.