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While we’re probably all familiar with the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet (they scored No. 1 and 2, respectively, in US News’s Best Diets Overall for 2022), it’s important to point out that these aren’t the only healthy eating patterns around town.

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The African heritage diet pyramid developed by Oldways – the same folks that introduced us to the Mediterranean diet – is yet another science-based healthy eating option. And it’s about time that we started embracing other cultures and their positive health benefits.

Why Heritage Diets Are So Important

According to Kelly LeBlanc, the director of nutrition at Oldways, “Health disparities across the country highlight the need for more inclusive dietary messaging. African Americans are too often told that the foods they grew up eating are unhealthy and that poor health is a part of their heritage. Oldways’ African heritage diet pyramid, which was developed with guidance from leading African American nutrition scientists and culinary historians, flips the script by celebrating the culinary legacy and often-unsung cultural ownership of healthy eating for people of African descent.”

So agrees Tambra Raye Stevenson, founder and CEO of Women Advancing Nutrition Dietetics and Agriculture, a nonprofit with a mission focused on reaching, teaching and advocating for women and girls of African descent in the nutrition, dietetics and agricultural space. “The science-based African heritage diet pyramid is all about connecting with your heritage based on scientific research that shows eating like your ancestors can help lower your risk of chronic disease, achieve a healthy weight and promote overall well-being.”

I can so relate to this heritage angle. Since I am 110% Italian, I’m as proud as a peacock that the foods in the Mediterranean diet, which were eaten and adored by my paesani (this is an Italian word for folks that share the same heritage), has been shown to be healthy. But in reality, all heritage food cultures, coupled with a healthy lifestyle, can serve as a nutritionally sound basis for a healthy diet. Thus, we should all be fanning our peacock heritage feathers.

That is why I praise Oldways for creating this inclusive eating pattern and other heritage diet plans, including the Latin American and Asian heritage diets. According to its website, “our ancestors have a lot to teach us about not letting fresh food go to waste, and how to eat seasonally. After all, they didn’t have a choice.”

The African heritage diet is very similar to the Mediterranean diet, as it’s based on a variety of nutrient- and fiber-packed vegetables, fruit, grains and nuts, along with healthy oils and seafood locally found in West and Central Africa, the American South , the Caribbean and South America.

I experienced firsthand a delicious African heritage food-inspired dinner at a recent conference in Washington DC on none other than Martin Luther King’s birthday. The foods served included oyster and ham broth with baby Swiss chard along with sweet onion and poultry in a spicy “yassa” sauce made with black mustard seed, clove, cardamom, black pepper, poppy and fennel. I had seconds on everything.

Easy Food Swaps

For culinary inspiration, Oldways has an extensive list of delicious recipe options to plan a meal around African heritage cuisine. If you want to ease into this some of the foods found in this region of the world, here is a list of swaps:

I’m breaking out of my Italian culinary comfort zone and broadening my palate to include healthy foods from other countries. Once I master the African heritage cuisine, I’m moving on to Latin America.

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