In addition to being National Black History Month, February is also American Heart Month, a month to raise awareness about the impact of heart disease.

Heart disease is a leading cause of death in the Black community, and our high rates of hypertension (high blood pressure), diabetes, and obesity increase the risk. Fortunately, these conditions have modifiable risk factors – meaning, there are steps we can take to reduce our risk of developing both them and heart disease.


Our food culture is as diverse and complex as we are as people.  Historically, though, our Southern, Caribbean, and South American foods all have roots in Africa.  Many of these traditional foods and ingredients are rich in nutrients and support heart health.


Southern home-style cooking includes healthy ingredients like sweet potatoes, collard greens, and black-eyed peas. These foods have nutrients that are beneficial to heart health.

  • Sweet potatoes have a bright orange color that means it is full of beta-carotene, a form of Vitamin A. Beta-carotene has been linked to the prevention of heart disease. We also need it to be able to see at night.
  • Collard greens have many vitamins and minerals, like Vitamin K, which studies show may reduce the risk of heart disease when consumed sufficiently during adolescence.
  • Black-eyed peas are a good protein source that is cheaper and lower in saturated fat than meat. Saturated fat is the type of fat that raises blood cholesterol levels and increases risk of heart disease.

All of these foods are also good sources of dietary fiber, which has been shown to improve cholesterol levels and reduce risk of heart disease. Other sources of fiber include whole grains, such as whole wheat, oatmeal, brown rice, whole corn, and popcorn.


While some nutrient-dense foods are still common in our culture, others have been replaced with processed foods and unhealthy prepared foods. These foods and cooking methods are high in sugar and saturated fat and add to our increased risk of heart disease:

  • Meats cured with salt, like different cuts of pork (bacon, ham hocks, fatback, etc.)
  • Butter, lard, and shortening
  • Full-fat cheese and dairy
  • Refined grains (white rice, pasta)
  • Sweetened drinks
  • Deep frying
  • Slow cooking vegetables in fat


The good news is that all foods, including our traditional favorites, can be part of our diet if eaten in appropriate portions and/or prepared in healthier ways.  Many of our less-healthy cultural foods can actually be prepared in ways that preserve or add nutrients.

Overall, to protect heart health, we can aim to eat more foods our ancestors ate:  greens, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins (beans/legumes, fish, and seafood).  We can also limit our meat and full-fat dairy intake, eat smaller portions of traditionally prepared foods, use salt-free spices and herbs to add flavor, and make ingredient substitutions.


Here is an example of substituting ingredients. Try making the following swaps in your family’s Mac & Cheese recipe:

  • Choose whole wheat macaroni noodles with fiber and other nutrients.
  • Use low-fat cheese and less of it (try extra sharp cheddar for more flavor in a smaller amount).
  • Replace heavy cream and/or whole milk with 1% or 2% milk, or even low-fat plain Greek yogurt for a tangy flavor.
  • Try different cheese/milk combinations until you have a recipe that you like.



February is also National Sweet Potato Month!

As mentioned, sweet potatoes are a cultural food that have many beneficial nutrients. Try these sweet and easy recipes for quick, heart-healthy dishes.

  • Roast sweet potatoes in a 400-degree oven until soft (about 30-45 minutes). Carefully slice open – it will be hot! – and add a few tablespoons of peanut butter for healthy fat and protein. Sprinkle with cinnamon, or your other favorite spices, for flavor.
  • Cut sweet potatoes into fries. Toss with enough olive oil (great for heart health!) to lightly coat the fries. Lay on baking sheet and sprinkle on your favorite herbs and spices: garlic powder, paprika, cayenne pepper, black pepper, oregano, etc. Bake at 425 degrees until crispy (about 20-25 minutes).
  • Have you tried “spiralizing” vegetables? Spiralizers are a kitchen gadget that cuts vegetables into thin, noodle-like shapes. Spiralized sweet potatoes can be eaten raw or cooked briefly, with your favorite pasta toppings or dressings.
  • If you are making sweet potato pie, use ⅓ to ½ cup less sugar in your favorite recipe. See if you and your family notice the difference.


By:  Alyssa Thomas, MPH-Dietetics Candidate, Colorado School of Public Health

© 2015 Colorado Black Health Collaborative
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