Killer Soul?

36. When Jonell Nash passed away last year at the not-so-old age of 72, it gave us pause to think about the relationship between “soul food” and the health of African Americans, a subject to which she had devoted much of her career. In any case, just as when a jogger drops over from a heart attack at 45, we can’t help but be struck by the irony that an advocate of healthier eating died prematurely.

The media had a hi-ho time back in 2012 when Paula Deen revealed that she has Type-2 diabetes. Deen, whose fame rests on recipes bearing a close (and largely unacknowledged) relationship to traditional soul food, was accused of hypocrisy, and many asserted that there was a direct link between her apparent diet (and love of butter) and the disease.


Does soul food kill? Byron Hurt‘s compelling (and entertaining) documentary “Soul Food Junkies,” (2012) is built around the story of his own father’s passion for soul food and his premature death.

byron-hurt 2012

Yet in the end, as Hurt acknowledges, there isn’t the same kind of A –> B causal link between soul food and bad health that there is, for instance, between smoking and lung cancer or drunk driving and fatal car crashes. Noticing correlations is one thing (people who eat food also die); discovering causations is quite another (this food killed you). Eating a second helping of banana pudding is not the same as getting e coli food poisoning or the norovirus from a contaminated burrito.


Nonetheless, special health issues face the general African American community, and there are undeniable and shocking disparities between African Americans and non-Hispanic whites. For instance, African Americans are 40% more likely to be obese, 30% more likely to have heart disease, 40% more likely to have a stroke, and 60% more likely to have diabetes. Blacks are much more likely to develop high blood pressure, and do so earlier than whites. Nearly half of African American women age 20 and older have developed high blood pressure.

Specific sub-group differences are even more startling. African American children are 73% more likely to be obese than their white counterparts, and almost twice as many African American women are considered obese or overweight.


But again, is soul food the chief culprit? There are other disparities that must be considered. For instance, African Americans are far more likely to live in towns that violate clean-air standards, or live near toxic waste dumps. Even with the improvements under the Affordable Care Act, African Americans often have less access to health care. Thanks to economic disparities and crime, African Americans who live in the inner city may have less access to safe places for exercise than their white counterparts safely ensconced in the suburbs.

So-called “food deserts” in inner cities and rural areas may make it difficult for the poor to have access to more nutritious food choices, a problem compounded by inadequate public transportation. Neighborhoods may lack supermarkets, so that folks either have to rely on the limited and pricey choices available at convenience or liquor stores, or turn to fast food. A 2011 CDC study found that over 30% of Americans lack reasonable access to healthier food retailers.


The issue gets even more complicated. Fast food restaurants typically charge far more for healthier menu items, such as salads, especially on a calorie-for-calorie basis. Less-healthy fast food is cheap in part because of heavy government subsidies. Farm subsidies make the grain that’s fed to cattle or turned into High-Fructose Corn Syrup much cheaper than fruits and vegetables.

The government also helps make fast food cheap by subsidizing corporate labor costs, allowing them to pay lower wages, which in turn allows the companies to maintain lower prices. Workers’ low incomes are propped up by governmental nutrition programs and health care assistance. Over 52% of fast food workers’ families receive public assistance, more than twice the rate of the general public. Bloomberg’s estimated that in 2013, this amounted to a $7 billion subsidy for the fast food corporations.

burger salad

After the 2012 elections, John Schnatter, the CEO of Papa John’s fast food pizza, became notorious for asserting that if the Affordable Care Act were not repealed, his franchisers would retaliate by cutting employee hours and by jacking up pizza prices. He claimed pizza would go up by 14 cents. (Others calculated that if the entire cost were passed on to consumers, it would be in the 6-10 cents range.)

Time is also a factor in nutrition and health. Eating at home involves making time for shopping, cooking, and cleanup, a luxury poor families may not have. If a working parent has two part-time minimum-wage jobs, she or he may not have time to cook. As a result, many families turn to pricey, highly-processed “convenience” foods, such as frozen dinners or entrees that are laden with salt, sugar, and fats. (Yes, I spend a lot of time in the grocery store reading labels.)


Ever since frozen “TV Dinners” were introduced in the 1950s, they have been marketed as time savers. This ad promises that, even in the days before microwaves, you’ll be able to pop fried chicken dinners out of the oven in 25 minutes, with “No work before, no dishes after!”

Some analysts, such as Julie Guthman, question the connections between diet, obesity and health. Is “fat” really an objective medical condition or merely the expression of an aesthetic preference? The poor tend to be fatter than the rich, and so the rich see obesity as a moral defect rather than a product of social and economic policies: fat people lack self-control.

The issue has come up in the 2016 Presidential race. In a controversial New York Times article concerning Donald Trump’s relationships with women, it’s alleged that Trump has engaged in body shaming women who have gained weight. Whether the specific details are true or not, it certainly reflects a common attitude, especially among the wealthy.

If we buy into that Puritanical streak, we may believe that cutting dietary fat will make us thinner and thus more acceptable. It’s a belief reflected in our multi-billion dollar weight-loss industry, even though it’s fairly clear that dieting is at best ineffective and at worst, counterproductive. We lose some, only to gain back more, as seen in even someone with Oprah Winfrey’s unlimited resources.


On an anecdotal basis, it’s the age-old question of why some people can eat like hogs and stay thin, while others can merely look at food and gain three pounds. My 96-year old father still puts away twice as much food as I do, yet has remained at an appropriate weight all his life, while I…have not. One’s weight may not just be the product of calorie intake, but also of environmental toxins, animal antibiotics, the release of stress hormones, etc.

Nonetheless, “soul food,” i.e., traditional African American cooking, has been a handy target. It’s had a major impact on the restaurant industry and on soul food menus, as chefs and owners try to adjust to changing tastes. Much of the standard “soul food” menu consists of items, such as candied yams laden in butter and brown sugar, that were intended to be feast items, not daily fare. It’s true that if you eat these foods every day, you probably will get fat and may well develop all sorts of health problems. But one restaurant meal, or a big Sunday dinner, isn’t going to kill you. If food kills, you might check your other lunch choices first.


Not soul food

Bottom line? In an age of rampant wealth disparity, where a handful of people own and run most of the economy, we like to think we retain some control over our lives. Governments may do little to investigate or address outside factors, or to improve food access or health care. But, by George, at least we can stop enjoying our food! Why eat fried chicken, mac & cheese, candied yams, and greens cooked in ham hocks, and then slip into a food coma, when you can have steamed broccoli and pita chips instead?

Now shut up and eat your lunch.



Author: Dan Anderson

I'm an Iowa boy by choice. I love cooking and I love history, so I thought I'd put the two together.

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