It could be just a coincidence that a geographical area of the United States now labeled as the diabetes belt, where the rate of diabetes (mostly type 2) exceeds 12 percent of the population, is concentrated in the American South. Or, maybe not.
Maybe a cooking tradition that can turn a serving of very-low-carbohydrate carrots into two carb choices, or no-fat turnip greens into a fat exchange is an ongoing demonstration of the destructive power of added sugar, fat, and salt.
Adding sugar, fat, and salt to otherwise healthy food really sums up the tradition of Southern and soul food, and some credible professionals, including David Kessler, MD, a former chief of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, suggest that this very combination of added ingredients has made modern fast food actually addictive. In that regard, Southern food and soul food has been way ahead of its time.
The important point is that many traditional Southern and soul foods aren’t unhealthy from the start — it’s the addition of less healthy flavoring ingredients that can overwhelm the nutritional value. Some common additions are as follows:
Frying foods always adds fat, but frying foods in lard or shortening can add lots of unhealthy saturated fat.
Adding sugar to cut fruit is a tradition that creates a tasty syrup, but adds loads of empty calories and carbohydrate to a food that is sufficiently sweet to start with.
Cured meats have been associated with significantly increased risk for type 2 diabetes in long-term studies. Bacon and ham, for instance, should be eaten on a limited basis, but adding these fatty foods to vegetable dishes for flavoring also adds fat and sodium.
Shortening or lard makes for flaky biscuits but can bring a load of saturated fat to these bread products.
Butter is mostly saturated fat — seven grams of saturated fat per tablespoon. Adding butter to flaky biscuits, along with a dose of carbohydrates from jelly or honey, is a Southern tradition that could stand improvement.
Batter adds fat and carbohydrates to food that is generally fried after dipping.
Creamy vegetables means you’ve added fat and carbohydrate to otherwise healthy dishes.
Gravy is made by adding carbohydrate, and sometimes fat, to the saturated fat cooked out of meat products.
Traditional Southern and soul food is represented in some U.S. fast food restaurants, most prominently by restaurant chains that specialize in fried chicken. There you can get coleslaw with 19 grams of carbohydrate and 10 grams of fat, all from the dressing, or a biscuit with more than 500 milligrams of sodium.
Add a chicken breast for 11 grams of carbohydrate (breading), 21 grams of fat, and nearly 1,100 milligrams of sodium, and you have a traditional Southern lunch that exceeds your daily sodium recommendation and invests four of your daily carb choices in white flour and added sugar.
Making Southern and soul food healthier for diabetes is mostly about limiting what’s added to healthy food. That means less frying in favor of grilling or baking, and there are great recipes around for oven-fried chicken, which is not really fried. The addition of fat from lard and butter and cured meats, like ham hocks, can be minimized by using unsaturated oils and soft margarines sparingly.
A smoked turkey neck can add Southern-style flavor to greens without leaving fat behind. Breading and cracker toppings add carbohydrates without significant nutritional benefit. And, adding sugar to foods that are already sweet, or to vegetables like corn, only piles on empty calories and carbohydrates.
The extraordinary rates of type 2 diabetes in the American South and among African Americans is probably related to some extent to eating habits passed down with this traditional diet. And a diet pattern that’s associated with developing diabetes is definitely not a template for effectively managing diabetes.
But simple modifications can go for big improvements in health, and planning for healthier food, especially limiting stray carbohydrates and fats that find their way into Southern and soul foods, is step number one.