Digging Into Black Plant-Based Food History, and Future

This Black History Month, Bon Appétit is focusing on food and wellness in Black communities. Manager of Food Education Kristina Todini, RDN had a conversation with registered dietitians Jessica Jones and Wendy Lopez of the inclusive wellness brand Food Heaven Made Easy, to discuss the current rise – and rich history – of plant-based diets in black communities across America. 

There’s no doubt about it – plant-based diets are not just a passing fad. The latest Gallup poll studying diet changes from 2020 found that 1 in 4 adults are choosing to eat less meat and people of color are leading the way with whopping 31% of people of color eating less meat than the previous year compared to white people, who reported eating 10 percent less. In fact, African Americans are the fastest demographic in America to adopt plant-based diets, according to a Pew Research Center 2016 study 

This rise in plant-based eating among black people may seem like a trend that has only popped up in recent years, but there is actually a rich history of plant-centric diets in Black communities in America, and throughout the world. “People often stereotype our cultural foods as not including any plants,” dietitian Wendy Lopez, MS, RDN says. “The truth is most cultural foodways are rich in various fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, and whole grains.” 

Wendy explains that the foods traditionally associated with Black communities are lumped into the ‘soul food’ favorites category – macaroni and cheese, collard greens, buttery biscuits, fried chicken or catfish, and chitterlings. But dig a little deeper into the roots of black food traditions and what you’ll find is an abundance of plants. “Enslaved African people brought several seeds from their homeland for planting, all present in African American soul food today. Think okra, black-eyed peas, and watermelon,” says Jessica Jones, MS, RDN. “African American soul food includes plant-based staples such as kale, collards, mustard greens, and sweet potatoes.” 

“I think part of the reason there’s a rise in plant-centric diets among black people is because the food systems in the United States are discriminatory,” adds Jessica. “There are higher rates of preventable chronic conditions in poor, black communities and there are major issues with food access in these communities. Striving to eat more plant-based may be seen as one way to reclaim our health.”  

This new return to plant-centric diets couldn’t come at a more opportune time. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, Black Americans are more than 60% more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes, 40% more likely to have high blood pressure, 50% more like to suffer from stroke, are 20% more likely to die from heart disease than white adults, and they also have the highest mortality rate of all cancers among all racial and ethnic groups. These disparities are a result in part of systemic racism in healthcare – but also in food systems. 

Some researchers are studying how to educate Black chefs to keep plant-based diets top of mind in their restaurants. The Nutritious Eating with Soul Study (or NEW Soul Study), ran in part by the University of South Carolina, is researching the health benefits of plant-based diet traditions from the African diaspora among Black Americans by pairing nutrition education with cooking classes for soul food restaurant owners throughout the American South to study health outcomes and plant-based diet acceptance. Their program research is currently underway and is expected to be released by the end of 2023. 

But food is just one area of health that needs to change to improve Black lives in America. “Improving food access in Black communities is incredibly important and also, there must be large, systemic changes that happen to improve the health outcomes of marginalized communities,” adds Wendy. “Food is just one layer, and things like poverty, housing, healthcare and mental health all need to be assessed as well when thinking about improving health outcomes.” 

However, as more Black communities begin to come back to their longstanding plant-forward food lineages, they continue to honor a heritage that stretches back hundreds of years. And by doing so, introduce new generations to a healthier lifestyle steeped in a rich food history.