Home Friday 5 Friday 5: 5 Reasons Soul Food Didn’t Make You Fat

Friday 5: 5 Reasons Soul Food Didn’t Make You Fat

by Erika Nicole Kendall

Finally…the time for vindication has come.

"Go back to the past to  build the future."

“Go back to the past to build the future.”

Last year, I had this entire epic essay series prepared, delving into the history of African American foodways and contrasting it with what we have and what we see today. Looking at the way our eating, as a culture, has evolved in this country – how our food migrated, how our treatments of food (the way we cooked, the way we stored, the way we preserved, the way we prepared) migrated from Africa, and the way our recipes really transformed food in America was just… it was something I was legitimately excited to do in this space.

But then…my ding dang laptop exploded. Like, literally…exploded. Crashed, motherboard muttering at me… everything. It was crazy. And painful. But after a few months, with the great assistance of a lovely twitter friend (thank you, Krissy!), I was able to retrieve most of my hard work… but then I had to wait until February to get it back going.

It’s February, baby.

It’s for the better that I do this in 2013, because now I’m actually certified in nutrition (among other things, now.) I’m equipped to understand the way the body nourishes itself, and the way it uses vitamins and minerals to its advantage. I’m capable of understanding the effects that food has on the body, and considering everything I’ve found, it’ll be important to explain why so much of what we believe about our cultural foodways is pure crap.

That’s right, I said it. Crap. Starting with the belief that soul food made us fat. That somehow, the reason the Black community is suffering so heavily from “the obesity epidemic” is because “they eat the fried chicken, and all that pork, and that macaroni and cheese and all those collard greens with all the vitamins boiled out of ’em…” and, I have to be honest. Every time I hear someone blame soul food for their obesity, I wonder what kind of self-hating dogmatist they got that from. Want to know why?

Here are five reasons why soul food didn’t make you fat:

1) Were you eating soul food 3 meals a day, 7 days a week? Or were you eating it once a week, Sunday night at the big meal because everybody had jobs and couldn’t spend all day slaving over a stove? Tell the truth: you weren’t eating chicken and waffles or grits every day for breakfast, you weren’t eating soul food leftovers every day for lunch, and you certainly weren’t cleaning collard greens for hours in the kitchen, boiling them for hours on the stove, and eating them at 11PM every night for dinner. You were eating sugary, cereal and fatty milk for breakfast, fast food for lunch, and a pot pie – made for two, by the way – for dinner. Keep it real.

The biggest complaint among most people nowadays is that they don’t have time to cook. That’s why they struggle with converting to healthy eating, and can’t give up processed food. It takes too long to cook a meal. So, it stands to reason that if it takes too long to cook a healthy meal, then it takes eons to cook soul food, which is – by all accounts – labor-intensive. So, really. Either you’re erroneously blaming soul food for your bad choices, or you’re lying about it taking too long to cook since you’re legitimately cooking soul food all day every day. Pick one.

2) Even when you do cook soul food… how “from scratch” is your cooking? I’m looking at you people who haven’t cooked a biscuit from scratch since scratch created you; you people who, when asked if you make your cornbread from scratch, you say “Does Jiffy count?”; you people who haven’t made a cake from scratch since you “lost your measuring cups”; and you people who stay making that dreadful “7 layer cake” with whipped cream full of trans-fatty whipped cream instead of making your own whipped cream from scratch. All of you. That’s not “from scratch.”It just… it doesn’t count. It doesn’t count. Let me learn you something.

When you buy boxed ingredients, they come full of extra sugar. They come with the important stuff – the vitamins, the minerals, the actual nutrients – stripped from the box as a means of protecting the shelf life of the ingredient. Whipped cream, believe it or not, has nutritive qualities. It – when made from scratch – has very little sugar, amazing vanilla flavor, and has practically the same nutrient profile as milk because… it is milk. Like, that’s it. It gets trans-fats added so that manufacturers can get away with using very little milk and still get that airy, whipped texture to it when you taste it. Taste processed whipped cream after you’ve experienced the homemade thing well-made… and the processed stuff tastes like…metal. Straight up.

Your cake mixes, cornbread mixes, biscuit mixes… all contain unnecessary sugar. Your seasonings even have excess sugar in ’em – don’t believe me? If you’ve got a bottle of Lawry’s seasoning salt in your pantry right now… take a look. No nutrients. Just…carbs. And crap. And, if you don’t believe me… take a long, hard look at the ingredients label on your regular go-to recipe. Jiffy, Betty Crocker, Bisquick… you can’t blame any of that on soul food. If you’re using velveeta in your mac and cheese… processed food. That ain’t cheese – that’s torture. Soul food…was from scratch. Flour, butter, water, salt, oil. Biscuits. Your little batter in a yellow bottle… you pretty much just let someone else tell you what you’re putting into your system.

3) The meat isn’t the same as it used to be. In an industry clamoring for a larger portion of the American “share of wallet” – meaning, “If an average American family only has, say, $50 to spend each week on groceries, how can I get them to spend $15 on our industry instead of $10?” – the goal was to get the average American family to eat more than the reported 146lbs per year of meat they were originally eating. And, if you want that number to grow, you have to ramp up the supply so that it can meet the demand.

So…what do you do? You start breeding four times as many cows… but then, you realize they’re not growing fast enough. So, now what? You feed them something that’ll help fatten them up quicker… you feed them corn.

Uh…this should all sound familiar:

We, here at BGG2WL, know what happens when you feed someone a lot of something they shouldn’t be eating… and prevent them from being able to move. They’re unable to healthily develop muscle, and equally unable to burn any fat they gain. Since they’re having a hard time developing muscle… the industry doesn’t say “Let’s give ‘em room to play and grow healthily.” They say “Give ‘em growth hormones.”

Take it a step further, though. Because the cows aren’t eating what they’re supposed to be eating, they’re unable to fight off infection (sound familiar?) and illness. So, instead of saying “Ohhh, we’re making the cows sick, let’s go back to giving them what they’re supposed to have,” the industry says “Give ‘em antibiotics.” The anti-biotics can’t take care of everything, so the cows have to have a hole created so that a “ranch hand” (literally) can reach their hand inside the cow and pull out the infectious and indigestible product. Any antibiotics may help with illness, but not infection… so the meat is thereafter cleaned with ammonia.

So. Not only are you eating poorly raised meat, you’re eating hormones and excessive antibiotics, too… and wondering why your own hormones are untrustworthy and why your own medications are unreliable at normal doses.

The meat is also fattier per 4oz cut, which means that even if you’ve been eating the same palm-sized portion of meat your entire life, over the course of the past 20 years or so, you’ve gradually been eating more and more animal fat.

Again: it’s not soul food’s fault your cuts of meat are of poor quality, and who would’ve told you to check the increasing amounts of fat you were putting into your body? If we all knew, would we all be here?

4) Your “sweet” isn’t even the same as the “sweet” of the past. The actual refining process of sugar results in three things – actual powdered sugar, molasses, and rum (fermented molasses). Sugar was the stuff that Britain imported/exported from its Caribbean colonies. Molasses is what was left for the slaves, which eventually found its way into the US as sweetener in cakes, pies and traditional fare.

Let me say that again: the sugar was for the slave owners in the house; the molasses – rich in antioxidants, gentle on the blood sugar – was what slaves used. If the slaves got a bit of sugar, rest assured it wasn’t a regular occurrence and was treated like a spice, not an everyday thing.

In other words, your taste for actual white sugar… wasn’t borne of soul food. That had much more to do with the push for processed foods to contain more sugar, in the hopes that you’d consume the product quicker, faster, and be compelled to rush out and buy more of it.

Again: not soul food’s fault.

5) Soul food was actually, at its core, centered around vegetables. Okra, tomatoes, collard greens, peppers, sweet potatoes, corn, mushrooms, peas, spinach, cabbage, eggplant, onions, and more. Meanwhile, the number of people coming to me daily talking about how they “can’t stand veggies” and it’s “something about the texture” reminds me that if, in fact, these people were actually still eating soul food – and a variety of it, at that – they wouldn’t be telling me that they “don’t like veggies… any veggies.”

I’m even going to throw in a 6th point, just for general purpose: if you genuinely believe that your “big Sunday dinner” with soul food with the family is to blame for your obesity, then you must not believe in “cheat meals,” right? I mean, the idea behind a “cheat meal” is that you take once a day to go HAM on a whole pizza or whatever foolishness people do, right? So, if that logic holds up – that one meal each week can cause such major damage that it can cause an entire culture’s worth of people to become obese – then that’s reason enough to stop the cheat meals, right?

Didn’t think so.

Listen. If you call into one of these categories, I’m not trying to make you feel bad. I used to be so bad at cooking, that I went a year in an apartment and the only time I turned on the stove was to overcook some cheap spaghetti. We all have to start somewhere. That’s not what I’m getting at, here.

What I am getting at is that it’s annoying to watch people who smell like McDonalds blame a culture of scratch cooking for obesity in a day and age where nobody “has time to scratch cook.” Even in passing, in a joking manner, blaming soul food for things caused by a food environment where the quality as well as the ingredients are unquantifiable… is cruel and unfair. I’m no longer willing to scapegoat the dishes my grandmother made me, with love, that she took with her straight out of Selma, Alabama. Not gonna do it. Not gonna let anyone do it in my presence.

The same thing that could be said for Blacks and soul food, could be said for Mexicans and their cultural staples, could be said for Italians and their cultural staples. The ingredients that make up those staples have changed in this country, and has resulted in not only appropriation of their culture, but their foodways as well. And, when corporate interests take hold of the mass production of those cultural components – pasta and tortillas, anyone? – and obesity develops, who’s scapegoated? Someone’s cultural foods.

Lots of things are to blame for the sharp rises obesity and its sister symptoms – lack of knowledge of cooking, lack of access to fresh food, lack of awareness of how to prepare and store fresh food, lack of money, lack of time to cook, lack, lack, lack… but admitting that makes us feel like we’re still, collectively poor, and it feels easier to just smile and say “it’s the soul food.” Don’t do it anymore.

Honor your Meemaw’s old pot of okra – no matter how much it reminds you of boogers – and stop buying into it. But when you figure out her peach cobbler recipe – how much clove did she put in it? – then you need to e-mail that to me. Because… its peach cobbler. That’s why.

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Courtney from "The Life & Food of Mrs.Curly Girl" February 1, 2013 - 11:20 AM

WOW!!! What an article! (Yes, I’m calling it an article not a blog post, because it’s that legit!)

You really hit the nail on the head. We as an American people need to throw away all the processed garbage and start cooking from scratch! Don’t have time? What’s what a Crock-Pot is for. Don’t have money? That’s what the Farmer’s Market is for. Don’t have a car? That’s what the bus and carpooling are for. I know it takes money and effort to put real food on the table, but it takes money and effort to beat cancer, too. I don’t want to wait until I’m deathly ill to start putting money and effort into my health.

Thanks for all you do! You are truly an inspiration to me!



christine February 1, 2013 - 12:11 PM

Not having time to cook everyday is why alot of people turn to fast food..trust me I’ve been tempted. I ususally cook half a day on Saturday and half a day on Sunday..enough food for the week. My freezer is full of single serve portions, throw on some good music and off I go..

SAVVYMOM February 1, 2013 - 12:22 PM

OMGOODNESS! THANK YOU!! You are a certified nutritionist so you have much more clout than me as a Southern home cook learning more and more about holistic nutrition.

I have been saying what you are saying for at least two years. IT is not the SOUL FOOD..It is this lumping together of processed/fast food crap that is being called “Soul Food’…period! Black folks were leaner and healthier 20 years ago and folks were cooking most of their meals. I grew up in a “Soul Food” house and I had not trouble with my weight. We had at leat 3 veggies and they were the star of the meal. The meat and starches were just their hanging out….My grandma and aunt would shun grocery markets and grow their own greens in the suburbs…We had collards, kale, cabbage, peppers, tomatoes….They referred to sandwich bread as “light bread”and they would severly limit our intake of that “cotton bread”… We roasted so much meat and everything was made from SCRATCH! I work full time as a professional and my kids prefer my “scatch” cooking to anything else that is out there…
Brilliant article!!

Curlytrini87 February 1, 2013 - 1:32 PM

Thanks Erika.
This is eye opening, yet it answers my long lived question.

I grow up in the caribbean (T&T) and I am use to cocking most of my meal form starch. Since living in USA I try my best to use fresh food; however where I live most of the time I use processed food to make many of my dishes. I always asked myself, how am I going to make my tradition west indan dishes healthy?

After, reading this article I know that cooking from starch and using fresh food is key and also portion control is key.

Now if I can only practice portion control.

Tazzee February 1, 2013 - 2:32 PM

This is all kinds of awesome and makes me want to pull out my Grandma’s old cookbook.

I did holler at the okra/booger comment.

Erika Nicole Kendall February 1, 2013 - 2:57 PM

You can’t tell me okra doesn’t look like snot and boogers, man. You can’t.

Anne February 1, 2013 - 3:07 PM

And this…right here is why I heart you and this blog!

And, heck yeah, okra looks just like what you said. My Nana could NOT get me to eat it!!

Kitana February 1, 2013 - 3:34 PM

A+ commentary on this. When I told my grandmother I was going back to clean eating, she said to me to she knew I would come back around to eating real food because that’s what I’d been raised on. I just moved away from home, never really paid attention to how to cook anything I ate growing up, and suddenly it was all processed-processed-processed. I feel happy to be going back to my roots, in a way — we always used real ingredients, we were always at the Eastern market buying up fresh fruits/veggies; I have so many memories of that and yet, somehow, I forgot all of it until now.

Nicole February 1, 2013 - 3:35 PM

This makes so much sense. I must spread the word. Many people feel like well I’ll just prepare my meal at home because at least I know what’s in it but we really don’t. I am making a conscious effort to eat cleaner and I’ve been doing better.

T.R. February 1, 2013 - 3:38 PM

Erica have you see the PBS Independent Lens feature “Soul Food Junkies” Interesting and informative. There’s a gentleman in the film, whose name I didn’t catch, who basically after a lot of the people in the film complain that soul food is what’s making us overweight and unhealthy, says:

“The most important thing is that people complicate their understanding of what soul food really is, because it’s easy to say it’s the bane of African American health. The bigger cause of the decline of African American health is the industrialization of our food system.”

The the film goes on to touch on food deserts and the low quality of fresh foods in poorer communities.

I don’t know if you’ve seen it, though knowing you, you probably have. :O)

Erika Nicole Kendall February 1, 2013 - 9:51 PM

I’ve seen it, even have an autographed copy of the DVD from the producer, himself.

And, when the gentleman in the documentary said that, I did a little holy ghost stomp in my seat.

Just sayin’.

Dawn @ TheBlackRadish.com February 1, 2013 - 4:30 PM

THIS!! All day long and twice on Sunday! I totally just said out loud at my desk at work “You learn ’em Erika!”

Dorothy February 1, 2013 - 5:05 PM

Speak the truth my sister!!! I have been arguing with people for decades trying to explain to them that soul food is not the problem. True soul food is primarily comprised of vegetables. True soul food is from scratch. True soul food is highly satisfying. Go to the average black person’s house and you will find a mass of processed foods that don’t resemble to soul food at all. Check out the grocery carts while shopping and look at the gallons of Hawaiian Punch,cookies,cakes, mac-n-cheese,candy, potato chips, and whatever. The soul food of my youth did contribute the obesity rate. There are very few soul food restaurants in black communities and the few soul food restaurants that do exist are catering to foods that were served as part of a holiday, Sunday, wedding or special occasion meal. The news media really get my blood boiling when ever they assert that soul food is killing black people. Other races are eating at the same processed troth as people of color. Child hood obesity was not the norm when I grew up. We have young children who can’t identify vegetables or fruits in their whole form. Food deserts and affluence are killing the masses. Thanks a million For this article. I waited for Erica to write this article. I realized several years ago that I had to return to the temple of my familiar with reference to clean eating. I personally have to cook from scratch. After years of eating junk I develop many food allergies.Oh by the way, I love okra.

Cheryl February 2, 2013 - 2:24 PM

Loved this post. I am such a fan of cooking & baking from scratch & very picky about my purchases and where I purchase from. I’ve run in to so many people who don’t realize how simple & easy it is to do. Many folks look towards what is quick & convenient to them, with a little preparation and organization a well balanced, and cooked meal could/should be at the top of every families list.

By the way, I have that peach cobbler on lock…unfortunately I am not really a recipe type person, I do a lot of eyeballing & tasting as I go, but I’m working on that and just loaded a ghost writer app. to store recipes as I go.

Fiona Jesse Giffords February 4, 2013 - 5:50 AM

Soul Food can be made with low calorie vegetables or else can be maintained the calorie level with a little fat is okay. Considering the weight gain is the reason behind the soul foods or meal means you don’t know what type of food you are consuming.

Dominique February 5, 2013 - 12:17 PM


Tanisha W February 8, 2013 - 5:16 AM

I absolutely love this. This, this, this, is the truth right here and I love you for posting it! I’ve shared twice already, and am gobbling up all of what you wrote. After a recent article demonizing the President for eating soul food, this is a very appropriate time too. Thank you again for writing this. You are awesome! <3

Erin February 8, 2013 - 10:15 AM

And lets not also forget that our ancestors/grandparents/parents moved around way more than we do. If we want to reach back to slavery, for example, working “from can’t see to can’t see” in a field picking cotton or [insert colonizer’s crop of choice] was a FULL day’s workout 5 or 6 times over. What do we do now? Sit in front of screens – TV, movie, computer, phone……….Oy vey!

Ana March 11, 2013 - 8:30 PM

Thank you SO much for writing this. I’m Mexican, and I am sick to death of hearing people say how bad Mexican food is for them or that they have to stop eating Mexican food if they want to lose weight.

I think it’s offensive and shows how little they really know about my cuisine and my culture. There is nothing unhealthy about this food the way my mom and I cook it–fresh beans, fresh fruit, a little rice and lots of peppers. The few truly unhealthy dishes we eat are reserved for Christmas, etc.

There is LOTS unhealthy about store-bought crispy taco shells piled high with industrial ground beef, sour cream, and cheddar cheese … I can’t say I know a lot about soul food personally but I’m sure our frustrations are similar.

Brittany March 14, 2013 - 9:12 AM

A number of studies I’ve read show that poor Latinos in the US have better health outcomes than poor people of other backgrounds, and one of the theories they have for why is because they tend to use more fresh ingredients. Whoever is telling you “Mexican” food is bad is full of crap (or Taco Bell… Same thing.)

Katia April 5, 2013 - 7:07 PM

ONE WORD–> AMEN!!! Loved this post.

coffeeandfingernails August 30, 2013 - 1:24 PM

Thanks so much for this! Lean protein, rice and vegetables was what I had for dinner every night that my grandmother cooked. Far cry from what I have now.

Ann Clyde August 31, 2013 - 7:21 AM

Oh my goodness girl, you are droppin’ it all over the place with this article! Wow, just so informative. I just recently in the last few months read Wheat Belly on recommendation from my best friend- have you read it? If so, what are your thoughts? I am so grateful to Melissa Harris-Perry for having you on (That’s where I found you)..I’m tellin’ you, publish a book! Thank you so much for your insight and wisdom..and chile you are so funny!

Hey June 8, 2014 - 11:49 PM

You are so right! I was just thinking about this the other day. It’s a fallacy that black people ate a lot of sugar and meat. Meat is expensive. If you’ve ever read any descriptions of what slaves ate, then you’d know that our ancestors ate a lot of greens, peas and breads. For the most part we used meat to season our food. When I was growing up the older folks raised on soul food couldn’t stand sugar. Most of them would eat beans and cornbread for dinner. If they ate meat it would be fish and that would be on a very special occasion. Have you ever been to a black birthday party and seen 60 percent of the guest, scrape the frosting off their cake? My great grandmother would cook a pot of beans, with two peaces of fat back mixed into it and eat it for lunch. She was born in 1895, live to be 96. You are so correct, it is not the soul food.

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