Health Through Heritage: The African Heritage Diet Pyramid

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Click the "Listen to Audio" link above to hear Dr. Harris' interview with Constance Brown-Riggs, MSEd, RD, CDE, CDN, Author of The African-American Guide to Living Well with Diabetes. Ms. Brown-Riggs is an Oldways program advisor and a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association (ADA).

Eating the foods of our ancestors may be the secret to good health, according to Oldways, which recently unveiled the latest in its family of five healthy eating pyramids.  The African Heritage Diet Pyramid, created by Oldways along with an advisory team of experts, is an evidence-based and practical tool for African American communities, using heritage as a motivator for change.

"We introduced the African Heritage Diet Pyramid because the traditional diets of the African Diaspora -- Africa, the Caribbean, South America and the American South -- offer a powerful, affordable, healthy eating model and meet the guidelines promoted today by health professionals everywhere," said Sara Baer-Sinnott, president, Oldways, a nonprofit food and nutrition education organization, guiding people to good health through heritage.


"Scientific studies show that many chronic conditions now prevalent in African American communities appear in populations as traditional diets are left behind," said Baer-Sinnott.

To create the African Heritage Diet Pyramid, made possible through a grant from the Walmart Foundation, Oldways worked with nutrition scientists, health experts, and culinary historians.  The pyramid is based on scientific research that shows eating like your ancestors can help:

§    Lower risk of heart disease, high blood pressure & stroke

  • Avoid or help treat diabetes
  • Fight certain cancers and many chronic diseases
  • Reduce asthma, glaucoma, and kidney disease
  • Nurture healthy babies
  • Achieve a healthy weight and avoid obesity
  • Reduce depression


"Clearly, what we eat has a major impact on our long-term health and well being," said Dr. Walter Willett, Chair of the Department of Nutrition, Harvard School of Public Health.  "All over the world, diabetes, obesity, hypertension, cardiovascular disease are increasing and that includes people from African descent right here in the U.S.  The African Heritage Diet Pyramid provides a way for people to connect with healthy dietary traditions from the past and enjoy healthy eating right here today."

The African Heritage Diet Pyramid, depicting an overall total diet, includes recommendations such as:

§    Every meal should include greens like spinach, collards and mustards and/or other vegetables, fruits, mostly whole grains and cereals, beans, peanuts and nuts, and healthy tubers like sweet potatoes.

§    Herbs and spices and also marinades and home made sauces are important and can give a regional flavor to a dish -- making rice and beans Caribbean rather than African.

§    Fish and seafood, especially tuna, mackerel and salmon (rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids) are recommended at least two times per week.

§    Use small amounts of healthy oils, like sesame or olive oil for dressings, and canola, red palm oil, or extra virgin coconut oil for cooking.

§    Eat eggs, poultry and other meats moderately.

§    Consume dairy in small portions.

§    Sweets, at the top of the pyramid, are foods to eat occasionally.


To show how to combine healthy foods in the pyramid into specific meals, Oldways introduced plates, or dishes, and recipes used as expressions of the cuisines of specific cultures in the four Diasporan regions.

The pyramid, recipes, grocery lists, heritage information and an African Heritage 101 brochure are available for free on Oldways' African Heritage & Health Portal.

In addition to the African Heritage Diet Pyramid, Oldways has created and introduced four other healthy eating pyramids (Mediterranean, Asian, Latin American and Vegetarian), along with health/education outreach programs. These pyramids have been used by millions of people and are seen in homes, doctors' offices, supermarkets, RD offices, cookbooks, journal articles, textbooks, and more throughout the world.

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