African Americans are two times more likely to have diabetes compared to Caucasians. African Americans are four times more likely to die from a stroke. African Americans are also one and half times more likely to obese. Why is this? My patients often tell me the reason they have certain conditions is because of their genetics. While some disease may have a genetic component, this is not the overwhelming reason why certain conditions run in families. We are more than just our genetics. The reason why we so often see similar conditions in families is because all the individuals are being exposed to the same culprit: a poor diet. What do I mean when I say poor diet? I mean a diet that is heavy in meat, fried and processed foods, sugary beverages, simple carbohydrates, and little plants. The reason why certain conditions plague entire families and communities is because we are all eating and cooking the same way.
During the times of slavery, our ancestors were given scraps to feed their families. These scraps consisted mostly of pork fat, left over animal parts, and corn meal. Essentially a diet high in fat, sodium, simple cards, that is low in nutrition. Our ancestors did what they had to do to survive and used what they were given to create meals for their families. Some of these cooking techniques have remained in our culture, not because we have to eat this way to survive, but because that’s what we know. For example, we cook our greens with ham hock for several hours, cooking away much of the nutrition, because that’s how our grandmother does, who learned from her ancestors. Cooking techniques such as these are what’s contributing to our high cholesterol and blood pressure. These same cooking techniques that our ancestors used to survive, are the same cooking techniques that are killing us.
I read in an article published by The Source Guide to Civil War Medicine that some slave owners had observed that slaves when their slaves ate mostly pork and bread, that they were more prone to disease. Slave owners who observed this then allowed their slaves to grow their own vegetables, because having a healthy slave was beneficial to them. Although that observation was made with out conducting a clinical trial, we have observed in research studies today that those who consume a plant-based diet have a decrease risk of disease. We must do better family. We have to educate our patients, family, and community about the role that food is playing in our health. If we don’t, who will? Our medical education will help us understand disease pathology, but it is up to us to do the research and educate ourselves about nutrition, because this is lacking in our medical education. As African Americans, we understand our culture better than anyone, so we need to have these critical conversations with our patients and community.
After my father had a stroke in 2017, I decided that no one in my family was going to have another stroke. I decided that starting with me, heart disease, obesity, and diabetes would no longer be the cause of early death amongst my family members. I have since devoted a significant amount of time educating myself about the role of food and nutrition in health so that I would have the skills to not only change my lifestyle and educate my family members, but to also educate and empower my patients. Some people leave their family money, property, and heirlooms; my goal is to leave my family with good health and a disease-free life.
Dr. Lauren W. Powell, MD, “The Culinary Doctor,” is a board-certified family medicine physician and culinary medicine specialist on a mission to end generational health issues in the African-American community. She makes healthy eating accessible through her debut book, “Food Essentials for the Busy Professional.” Dr. Lauren is also the co-founder of Young Lady Watching, a not-for-profit organization purposed to empower and encourage young minority females to pursue careers in healthcare.