5 Best African Heritage Diet Foods to Combat Chronic Diseases, According to a Dietitian

Black people have a higher risk for chronic conditions like heart disease and diabetes. Eating these African Heritage Diet foods can help you reduce the risk of these conditions.

a collage of various foods that are part of the African Heritage diet
Photo: Tambra Stevenson

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.

Many of us know someone living with a chronic health condition, or are living with one ourselves. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health (OMH), Non-Hispanic Black people are disproportionately impacted by chronic conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes and arthritis. While health inequities are definitely a factor, our diet and activity levels can also play a major role in preventing, treating or managing chronic conditions. Eating foods rooted in the African Heritage Diet provides essential nutrients that can be key to unlocking better health and managing chronic medical conditions.

The African Heritage Diet is based on foods from the African continent and throughout the African diaspora, per Oldways, a food and nutrition nonprofit dedicated to improving public health through heritage-based diets. This eating pattern is primarily plant-based, paired with fish, seafood and just a little meat. It has fueled people with nutrients and helped generations thrive. As African people were enslaved and traded around the globe—and later migrated by choice—agricultural knowledge, seeds and foodways traveled with them and spread throughout the diaspora. Yet, due to biological, psychological, social and environmental factors, African Americans suffer disproportionately from chronic medical conditions such as diabetes and heart disease. However, adopting the African Heritage Diet can help reduce the risk of such health conditions.

Below we share 5 disease-fighting foods of the African Heritage Diet that you can add to your eating pattern even if they are foods you don't typically consume in your family or cultural tradition.

Black People and the Risk for Chronic Diseases

According to the National Institutes of Health, disparities run deep and persist in many contexts, including health care, housing and safety. Black people, and to a lesser extent members of other racial and ethnic minorities, continue to be the most affected by chronic health illnesses and early death in the U.S. Recent research, such as a 2018 study published in Psychoneuroendocrinology, has suggested a link between the repeated racial discrimination Black people face and measures of chronic physiological stress, like high blood pressure and blood sugar levels, which increase chronic disease risk.

What the Data Shows

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2017 reports that African American Black people aged 18 to 49 are twice as likely to die from heart disease than White people.

Diabetes statistics from the OMH state that non-Hispanic Black adults are 60% more likely than non-Hispanic White adults to be diagnosed with diabetes and twice as likely to die from this condition. The most striking data reveals that Black women are more likely than other racial and gender groups to experience chronic diseases, including heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer, per a 2020 article published in the Journal of Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities.

This data highlights the urgency to raise awareness and encourage adopting nutrient-dense foods from the African Heritage Diet that can help combat chronic diseases.

5 Best African Heritage Diet Foods to Combat Chronic Diseases

The list of African Heritage Diet foods that boost health and prevent diseases is long. It includes egusi (white-seed melon), okra, papaya, peppers, moringa and sweet potato, to name just a few. While there is no single best food, here are five other key foods packed with nutrients that help combat chronic conditions.

1. Millet

Millet is a group of naturally gluten-free, whole-grain, ancient cereal crops with several species; two major varieties include teff and fonio. Teff is high in iron and calcium and teff flour is used to make the flatbread injera, common in Ethiopian and Eritrean cuisine. Like many whole grains, teff has a nutty flavor, leaning toward hazelnut, more specifically. That's why you'll find many recipes using teff flour, such as Injera (Ethiopian Flatbread) and these Gluten-Free Fudgy Teff Brownies. Depending on the consistency you're looking for, teff takes 8 to 20 minutes to cook.

Fonio, also known as acha, is native to West Africa and is said to have been cultivated for at least 5,000 years, per a 2013 article in the International Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism. Fonio has a texture similar to couscous, with a quick cooking time and a nutty flavor perfect for a savory side seasoned with your favorite spices and herbs. It also lends itself to sweeter preparations, such as in our Slow-Cooker Overnight Fonio Porridge.

In addition to plant-based protein, millet contains complex carbohydrates and fiber, so it is digested slowly and does not sharply raise blood sugar levels. Avoiding large spikes in blood sugar is important for those managing type 2 diabetes and can help prevent the onset of this chronic condition. Fonio also contains plant phenols that protect your cells from oxidative damage and stress. According to a 2020 review published in Frontiers in Physiology, oxidative stress has been shown to increase the risk of chronic disease.

2. Leafy Greens

There are many leafy greens that are foundational to the African Heritage Diet. Bitter leaf, callaloo (amaranth leaf), collards, Njama Njama, Malabar spinach, oha leaf, ugu and utazi are just a few examples. These greens can be added to soups and stews or sautéed with peppers and onions. Depending on where you are located, a specialty market or a local farm can be the best place to access some of these greens.

The fiber found in leafy greens supports a healthy gut, feeding the good bacteria in your digestive tract. Research, such as a 2021 review published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, suggests a healthy gut is linked to blood pressure management and reduced risk for cardiovascular disease. Aim for multiple servings of greens (either fresh or frozen) each day, and move your body in a way that you enjoy for a powerful one-two punch in managing chronic disease.

3. Hibiscus

Known for its beautiful red or pink color, the hibiscus plant, or roselle, is steeped in water to make a tea or drink that can be enjoyed hot or cold. The slightly tart drink often has ginger, spices, citrus and pineapple added for a full flavor. It is called zobo or bissap in West Africa, karkade in North Africa, sorrel in Jamaica, and agua de Jamaica for Afro-Latinos. Studies support hibiscus tea's health benefits, such as its ability to help lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke. If you are already taking medication to lower your blood pressure, consult your doctor or pharmacist before adding hibiscus to your diet, as there are potential interactions.

Recipe to Try: Strawberry-Hibiscus Agua Fresca

4. Plantains

Plantains have been a staple crop for millions of people for thousands of years. Similar to bananas but much larger, plantains also grow in tropical climates. While you can find them in various colors, a peel with black tones means the plantain is ripe and sweeter. Plantains are packed with nutrients, such as vitamins A and C, dietary fiber and antioxidants. These nutrients are well known for their health-promoting properties. In addition to feeding your healthy gut bacteria, fiber can help lower the risk of cardiovascular diseases and type 2 diabetes. And research has shown that not only do antioxidants reduce oxidative stress damage, but they may also protect you from health conditions such as cancer by inhibiting the production of compounds that promote the development of this disease.

5. Baobab Fruit

The baobab fruit grows on the baobab tree found throughout Africa. Often called the tree of life, a baobab tree can be centuries old and is an important part of livelihood and nutrition, as the leaves, pulp and seeds are edible. The dry white pulp of the fruit has a sweet citrus flavor. In the U.S., it is mostly available as baobab powder. Baobab powder is rich in potassium and nutrients with antioxidant properties, such as vitamin C. Studies show that foods with antioxidant qualities are associated with lower levels of chronic inflammation, per a 2022 article in Plant Antioxidants and Health. Chronic inflammation contributes to arthritis, diabetes, heart disease and stroke. Additionally, baobab powder is a great source of dietary fiber, with 1 tablespoon providing over 6 grams, per the USDA. Baobab is a tasty addition to juice, yogurt, porridge or even baked goods.

The Bottom Line

The African Heritage Diet is full of flavorful vegetables, whole grains, fruits, tubers and spices that contain nutrients to help combat chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease. Anyone can enjoy the health benefits of the African Heritage Diet, regardless of their heritage. Plantains, millet, baobab, hibiscus and leafy greens are great options to incorporate into your diet to help you get started. You can find these foods at markets that cater to Latino, Caribbean and/or African populations or at online retailers and marketplaces.

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