A plate of healthy greens and veggies.
Photography copyright © 2023 by Christine Han.
Published by goop Press/Rodale Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, LLC.
Reprinted with permission.

Soulless Food: How White-Washed Wellness Leaves Out Black Culture

There is a detrimental misconception about Black diasporic food, and it’s time for cultural awareness in a dangerously white industry.

For centuries, food has served as a means to connect people across various communities. There is no more common tradition among humanity than breaking bread. This universal experience tells the story of migration, spirituality, identity, and struggle – connecting people, places, and purpose through time. Though not exclusively so, that is perhaps nowhere more true than within the Black community. In many ways, food has become a cultural hallmark of what it means to be Black in America.

Documentaries like Netflix’s 2021 series High on the Hog highlight how the trans-Atlantic slave trade influenced American cuisine, tracing the roots of Black nutrition “from Africa to Texas.” Traditional foods like fried chicken, grits, greens, macaroni and cheese, cornbread, watermelon, peach cobbler and the like are heavily associated with Black America. These foods are a part of the fabric of the southern United States and beyond, often bridging the gap between lines of color.

The State of Black Nutrition

The reality of “soul food” dishes is that they are often heavy with salt, fat, and sugar. An unbalanced diet rich in these foods will undoubtedly harm a person’s physical health. The rates of chronic issues like obesity, diabetes, and heart disease are indeed high in the Black community — even amidst universally high rates in the United States. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the prevalence of chronic disease in the United States has grown by 7 to 8 million people every five years for the last 20 years; chronic disease affects 50% of the population, and its care consumes more than 85% of health care costs. NIH notes that Black Americans suffer disproportionately from earlier onset of chronic illness and disability than other ethnic groups, primarily due to the social determinants of health.

To make matters worse, Feeding America reports, “The Black community consistently faces hunger at higher rates than whites due to social, economic, and environmental challenges. In 2021, nearly 20% of Black individuals experienced food insecurity — almost three times the rate of white households.” Many chronic illnesses are preventable with diet, exercise, or other wellness activities; however, less than 3 percent of U.S. registered dietitians and nutritionists are Black, leaving a blind spot in the field that overlooks nuance and culture.

Beyond diet, the Black community experiences several other factors that contribute to overall levels of health, or lack thereof. Not least of which is a deeply ingrained mistrust of the medical community. From a lack of representation among doctors to historical atrocities involving medicinal trials, Black people are often far less likely to seek out the advice of healthcare professionals, including nutritionists.

Apart from the lack of representation, an underlying factor contributing to poor health in our communities is a fear that adopting a healthier lifestyle — particularly a healthier way of eating — will lead to losing food traditions that are a bedrock of our culture. Gatherings centered around food, such as the famed “cookout,” are integral to Black family life. Or Sunday dinner, where we gather to cook, eat and engage in fellowship. What happens to tradition when we remove traditional dishes?

Removing the “Soul” From Our Food

The Black community faces multiple crises that impact our well-being, including mistrust in healthcare, chronic illness, and hunger. In a world of increasing healthcare costs and food access concerns, we can transform our well-being by viewing food as medicine. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Foundation, food as medicine is “food and nutrition play a role in sustaining health, preventing disease, and as a therapy for those with conditions or in situations responsive to changes in their diet.” While shifting into this mindset is vital, there’s still a need to find a balance between our need for wellness and our cultural identity.

Maya Feller, MS, RD, and CDN, founded Maya Feller Nutrition, a private practice specializing in nutrition for chronic disease prevention. She is also the author of the cookbook Eating from Our Roots. She spoke with Okayplayer to provide insight into how Black nutrition can simultaneously embrace health and culture.

Feller emphasized that wellness can be achieved without sacrificing the foods we love – even if recipe modifications are required. “Culturally relevant foods can be a part of a pattern of eating that supports a desired health outcome for someone with diabetes or hypertension. I think of a friend who made this Kenyan dish with ten different vegetables, herbs, and spices. And if you think about what GI doctors say regarding gut diversity, doctors want people to have 15 different pieces of produce, and many of these soups, stews, and combination dishes have tons of things in them.”

Celebrity chefs like Marcus Samuelsson or Carla Hall are invaluable in providing a different view of what Black nutrition can look like and even introducing us to foods from across the diaspora. The key is not to say “no” to certain foods but to consider modifications and ingredients that help us say “yes” to wellness.

The True Meaning of Wellness

According to scientists, wellness materializes when six intersectional dimensions of health are nourished: physical, spiritual, intellectual, psychological, social, and emotional. Every aspect of our being is interrelated, and while well-being has no sole determinant, the self-reported measures of individuals often correlate to one or more of these six dimensions.

Increasingly, wellness and well-being are featured buzzwords in employers' benefits packages, a focal point of influencer feeds, and a recurring theme within social circles.

The wellness space appears to care about the well-being of all. However, this outward support often falls short for the Black community. It became known as “well-being washing,” which occurs when an entity centers well-being as a means of positive reputation management but fails to support its implementation materially.

Feller mentioned that she has learned that discussions regarding wellness “are for those who can attain it, and for those who have the emotional bandwidth and the financial flexibility.” This “well-being washing” is another reminder that systemic racism has a hold on every element of Black life and an exceptional grip on Black nutrition.

The ‘Food Apartheid’

Feller spent this summer conversing with epidemiologists and other specialists about how poverty seems to be the defining factor for disproportionate disease burden, impacting the overall well-being and choices available to those experiencing it.

For example, in households where parents are forced to work multiple jobs, quick and easy options like fast food and other highly processed meals are a matter of practicality. Amidst ongoing systemic injustice, poorer communities, often made up of historically marginalized groups, rely on some form of government assistance. While the food options through programs like SNAP are increasingly fresh, a person’s accessibility can be restrictive, meaning that healthier options like fresh produce are not always available where they live.

Many of these communities live in what are commonly, though inadequately, known as “food deserts,” where access to a traditional grocery store is not available for miles. Instead, Feller introduced me to the term “food apartheid,” which she believes more accurately reflects the racist and oppressive systems that create inequitable food environments.

Another, perhaps less obvious, barrier that Black people face in the quest for physical well-being is the whitewashed nature of diet and exercise spaces. Indeed, pioneers like Martinus Evans strive to put a revised face on what fitness looks like. But, overwhelmingly, the space is dominated by skinny white women in yoga pants. A perusal of the typical fitness publication might convince you that there is still a “whites only” sign hanging above hiking trails and that outdoor activities — those that would contribute to a healthier lifestyle — are not for us. However, Feller described a recent experience on a river rafting trip that felt like a call to action. The rafting company owner eagerly inquired about how to attract more historically marginalized individuals to outdoor activities. “I was thrilled because he recognized that this activity we were doing was very much a part of wellness.”

The Black Food Pyramid

A part of achieving wellness will mean moving past socially acceptable norms. Did you grow up with “Got Milk” ads, school lessons devoted to the food pyramid, and the understanding that breakfast is the day's most important meal? What if I told you that these commonly held beliefs result from an orchestrated series of public relations campaigns and not sound science?

I asked Feller about the links between our choices and the shifting information socialized today. She said, “Sometimes we forget that there's a link between industrialization, how much we work, how little we engage in restorative behaviors (like moving our bodies), and chronic illnesses. A breakfast of eggs, bacon, and toast initially centered around people going out to engage in physical work. It was a very different way of interacting with food. I'm always cautious because I don't want to say there is anything wrong with bacon and eggs.”

She continued, “One of the challenges is that we've gone from one egg being good to five eggs being better. If I sit down to a scrambled egg, a piece of bacon, and a slice of toast every morning, I'm almost positive that my [medical] labs won't be fine. That's why we're talking about modifications. The guidelines and recommendations, as they stand, work for some, but not for all.”

When Feller advises patients, her approach is bespoke and culturally relevant. While she sees patients virtually from across the country, she is Brooklyn-based, where the corner bodega is a staple. Much like our needs have shifted away from food pyramids, the local bodegas have expanded. Cities like Brooklyn have gentrified over the years and given way to craft breweries, farm-to-table eateries, and bodegas that are “pretty damn fancy,” as Feller put it. But as you venture further outside the city, into areas where people experience food apartheid, the typical bodega is stocked with more shelf-stable items than fresh ones, and many need assistance navigating healthy food options. “What I say to people is, if you're thinking about your blood pressure, for example, read the back of the package to see what the lowest sodium option is. If you're thinking about your blood sugar, make sure you find a source of protein to mix with a carbohydrate.” In the end, education about what healthy eating means individually is critical.

In speaking with Feller, it was clear there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Even so, two key behaviors surfaced:

  1. Seek a culturally humble partner in your journey towards well-being, be it a nutritionist or physician who takes the time to ask more questions, actively listen, and build a specific care plan.
  2. Seek activities and partners to help you navigate those intersectional dimensions of wellness (physical, spiritual, intellectual, psychological, social, and emotional). Simply start somewhere and make the best choice possible today.

Our strength, however, lies in finding and fostering community. The onus falls to us to move beyond stereotypes and determine what the ongoing wellness narrative in the Black community can and will become. Our history in America shows we must rely on something other than the system to act in our best interest.