What Is the African Heritage Diet?

Learn about the foods that make up the African Heritage Diet and how they can help you be your healthiest self.

Hundreds of nutritious fruits, vegetables and grains are indigenous to the African continent, where the cuisines of each country and region are as diverse as the crops that grow there. Our series, African Heritage Diet as Medicine: How Black Food Can Heal the Community, explores the African Heritage Diet and highlights some of the most nutrient-dense foods found on the African continent and treasured by the diaspora. This dietary pattern—introduced by Oldways—promotes health outcomes associated with longevity and increased vitality and features foods that are most likely to be available worldwide.

When it comes to diets that promote optimal health, many dietitians and health professionals recommend the Mediterranean diet, as it is one of the most recognized and researched diets. Chances are, you've probably heard of or read something about the Mediterranean diet at some point.

With the widespread attention that the diet often receives, it can sometimes seem like the Mediterranean diet is the only healthy one. However, this is not true, as other eating patterns are also linked with health outcomes.

Also recognizing this is Oldways, a food and nutrition nonprofit focused on improving public health through heritage-based diets. In 2011, Oldways introduced the African Heritage Diet food pyramid with an advisory panel of leading health experts, culinarians and scholars of African descent, including culinary historian Jessica B. Harris, Ph.D. The African Heritage Diet highlights the rich culinary traditions and contributions of the African diaspora, a term describing the collection of peoples of African descent residing mostly on the African continent or, due to the slave trade, in South America, the Caribbean islands, in North America and throughout the world. The food pyramid helps conceptualize the diet's recommendations.

Not only does the African Heritage Diet showcase healthy, plant-based foods enjoyed across the diaspora for years, but it also rewrites the narrative surrounding nutrition and health in African American communities, using food and history as a source of empowerment.

a photo of various African foods
Photo: Getty Images. Design: Tambra Stevenson.

What Comprises the African Heritage Diet?

The African Heritage Diet celebrates and highlights the foods, eating patterns and rich cultural heritage of the African diaspora—in Africa, the Caribbean, parts of South America and the American South—while meeting many of the guidelines that experts recommend for supporting optimal health.

To help conceptualize the diet's recommendations, Oldways created the African Heritage Diet Pyramid. Unlike other food pyramids, which have been criticized for not reflecting how people truly eat, the African Heritage Diet Pyramid was crafted in a way that depicts relative amounts of foods that should comprise a typical diet over time.

The bottom of the pyramid features foods that make up the foundation of the diet, with the recommendation to base each meal on these foods—fruits, vegetables, leafy greens, beans, whole grains, tubers, nuts and seeds. The pyramid also emphasizes flavoring foods with herbs, spices and sauces rather than high amounts of salt. Greens are so important in the African Heritage Diet that they have their own category (the bottom layer).

Further up the pyramid are foods that are eaten more moderately, including poultry, eggs, meat, fish, seafood, dairy and healthy oils. Unlike other eating patterns, such as the Mediterranean diet, fats (including healthy oils) aren't consumed as frequently in African diasporic cultures.

Atop the pyramid are pies and other sugar-sweetened desserts that are best eaten sparingly or during times of celebration. The beauty of this design is that every food has a place on the pyramid, and no foods are excluded, including those often demonized by other diets.

a photo of the African Heritage Diet food pyramid
Courtesy of Oldways. EatingWell design.

Here's a non-exhaustive list of foods to include on your African Heritage Diet-friendly shopping list:

  • Leafy Greens: Beet greens, callaloo, collard greens, turnip greens, kale, spinach, watercress, dandelion greens, mustard greens and cassava leaves
  • Vegetables: Asparagus, beets, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, carrots, eggplant, garlic, onions, pepper, okra, squashes, jicama and green beans
  • Fruits: Baobab (or baobab powder), bananas, plantains, blackberries, blueberries, avocado, figs, guava, lemons, mangoes, oranges, plums and watermelon
  • Tubers: Cassava, potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams and yuca
  • Whole Grains: Amaranth, barley, couscous, fonio, maize, corn, millet, rice, sorghum, teff and wild rice
  • Beans: Black-eyed peas, broad beans, butter beans, chickpeas, cowpeas, kidney beans, lentils, lima beans and pigeon peas
  • Nuts & Seeds: Benne (or sesame) seeds, Brazil nuts, cashews, coconuts, peanuts, groundnuts, pecans, pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds
  • Herbs, Spices & Sauce Ingredients: Cider vinegar, annatto, arrowroot, bay leaf, cinnamon, cilantro, cloves, coconut milk, dill, ginger, mustard, nutmeg and paprika
  • Fish & Seafood: Catfish, cod, crayfish, dried fish, mackerel, mussels, oysters, prawns, trout, sardines, shrimp and tuna
  • Poultry, Eggs & Meat: Chicken, eggs, beef, lamb and turkey
  • Oils: Coconut oil, olive oil, palm oil, peanut oil, sesame oil and shea butter
  • Dairy: Buttermilk, yogurt, almond milk, rice milk and soymilk
  • Sweets: Cakes, custards, cobblers and pies made with fruits, nuts, whole grains and minimal added sugar

While nutrition is a major contributor to health, other non-food factors influence overall well-being too. The African Heritage Diet pyramid addresses these additional determinants of health by including lifestyle attributes, such as engaging in physical activity, cooking together and enjoying meals with friends and loved ones.

Health Benefits of the African Heritage Diet

Although the African Heritage Diet has not been as heavily researched as the Mediterranean diet, it is a culturally appropriate intervention that has been shown to positively impact health, as evidenced by the results of peer-reviewed studies.

A 2022 peer-reviewed study, published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, evaluated "A Taste of African Heritage," a six-week cooking and nutrition curriculum based on healthy, plant-based foods from the African diaspora, and showed that participants in the program reported:

  • An increase in their overall intake fruit, vegetable and leafy greens intake
  • An increase in their weekly amount of physical activity
  • Reduced body weight, waist circumferences and lower blood pressure

A Taste of African Heritage is also recognized by SNAP-Ed (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education) as a research-tested approach and included in its toolkit of evidence-based practices. This inclusion further solidifies the African Heritage Diet's legitimacy as a healthy eating plan that promotes good health.

How to Get Started

Looking to include more African Heritage Diet foods throughout your week? The good news is that you're likely already eating many foods that are part of this eating pattern. Most of these ingredients can be found either in your pantry or at your nearest food market.

You can also search online to find local restaurants and markets near you that sell and/or serve foods from across the African diaspora. Seeing or tasting new ingredients (like egusi seeds or ackee) or familiar ones prepared in a new way (such as using peanut butter to make mafe, a West African peanut stew) can serve as inspiration when deciding what to cook.

Recipe to Try: Chicken Stew with Collard Greens & Peanuts

For the past decade, Oldways' "A Taste of African Heritage" class has helped people learn more about the African Heritage Diet and how to cook quick and affordable meals from the African diaspora. People of all demographic and professional backgrounds are invited to register for the course or bring this program to their community to help honor both heritage and health in African American communities.

To bring the wisdom of the African Heritage Diet into your kitchen, try boosting flavor with spices, making vegetables the star of your plate, leaning on rice and beans your new staples, and going for the greens.

The Bottom Line

From West African cuisine being listed as a 2023 food trend by The New York Times to successful food festivals such as BayHaven and The Family Reunion, and to the ongoing jollof wars that grace our social media timelines, this is a special time in which African Heritage foods are receiving the attention and recognition they deserve in communities both within and outside the African diaspora.

To eat healthy in 2023 and beyond, look beyond the Mediterranean to the Motherland and the diverse array of foods that make up the African Heritage Diet. It is an eating pattern rich in flavors and history and can provide all the nutrition you need to live your best possible life.

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