African American culture is rich in tradition and American history. Americans of African descent represent many different nationalities, religions, and cultural backgrounds. While some Africans migrated to America willingly, others came as a result of forced migration from the slave trade. Even today, African American families are significantly impacted by two centuries of slavery. It has influenced African American beliefs, traditions, nutrition, and overall health and wellbeing. As a result, culture has a significant impact on African American health. It influences culture perceptions, how healthcare services are used, and the type of services needed. By gaining a better understanding of the health problems facing African American families, healthcare professionals can better serve this community. This can be done by analyzing the relationship between African American culture and nutritional health as observed within my family.
Like many African Americans, my family history can be traced back to slavery. This is assumed through my family’s history in the United States. There is no information regarding our country of origin and the family does not carry the original name or tongue of African ancestors. The family name we carry can only be linked back to slave owners and those who changed their surname for the purpose of reinventing themselves after freedom. My maternal and paternal family history can be dated back to the South, Virginia and South Carolina, where the slave trade flourished. In addition, we hold cultural traditions in line with those observed throughout slavery. This is specifically seen in nutrition, religion, and customs.
My family origins can only be traced back to my great-grand parents. They lived during the late 1800’s and into the mid 1900’s, also known as the Reconstruction era or Jim Crow. Little is known about the men in the family from this generation. This is because many African American men like my paternal great-grand father, died too early. Most often this was result of racism or limited access to healthcare. For this reason, many African American families are constructed as a matriarchy. This means women are most often head of the house. “The family may be matriarchal, although father or mother may take on the decisions-making role”, (Carteret, 2011). This can be seen in my family where my father is present but my mother rules the home. Women are more likely to make up the family elders and observed with power, respect and wisdom. Although my great-grand parents and grandparents are deceased, both my parents are living. My mother and father knew their grandparents and can recite their name and where they lived. In addition to great-aunts and uncles, regular aunts, uncles, and 1st, 2nd, and 3rd cousins, I come from a large and loving family. Our family history is often kept alive by sharing stories, memories, and experiences. This is in line with African American culture and traditions, as stories are often passed down from one generation to the next.
Like families all over the world, my family is affected by negative health outcomes. These include health problems that are taboo and left unsaid, such as AIDs and cancer. Other illnesses that affect my family include heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. Although these problems can be observed within my extended family, they are limited. These cases are isolated incidents and occur sporadically among family members. However, high blood pressure is a problem that plagues the family throughout generations. High blood pressure affects many family members over the age of 40. Both my parents have high blood pressure as well as several of my aunts, uncles, and cousins. According to research, high blood pressure is a health phenomenon that significantly impacts the Black community. “Studies have consistently reported a higher prevalence of hypertension in Blacks than in Whites, a main reason for the higher incidence of cardiovascular disease in Blacks”, (Fuchs, 2011).
Research from the American Heart Association has found, “more than 40% of non-Hispanic Blacks have High Blood pressure”, (Fuchs, 2011). High blood pressure, also known as hypertension or HBP is associated with additional health risks such as heart disease, cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity, and kidney disease, (CDC, 2010). Although some claim this is a result of biological differences, research has found that high blood pressure is an African American problem and does not affect Blacks in different parts of the world. As a result, it becomes clear that high blood pressure “demonstrates that environmental and behavioral characteristics are the more likely reasons for the higher prevalence”, (Fuchs, 2011). This relates to African American cultural habits that cause a higher frequency of high blood pressure within this population.
There are many social and cultural factors that influence high blood pressure in the Black community. Much of this is associated with income, stress, and diet, (Fauchs, 2011). For instance, individuals from low income families are more likely to have poor diets due to limited access to healthy foods. As a result, they are also more likely to eat fast food for economic convenience. Low economic status is not only a predictor or poor health, but as many of 70% of Africa Americas work blue collar or low wage jobs, (Duckett & Artiga, 2013). Although research has found that income is associated with hypertension it does not address the relationship between culture and diet. This is seen as traditional African American food is high in fat, salt, and oil- all of which are contributing dietary factors to hypertension.
Slavery significantly impacted the diet of Black Americans. They had limited food options under inhumane conditions, often eating food unwanted and discarded by slave owners. These foods were often high in calories and sometimes of poor nutritional value. For example, different parts of the pig such as feet, intestines, neck and tail are customary in Black dishes. Over time, these dishes became tradition representing the history and culture of African Americans. Food has meaning within the Black community representing family and unity. This tradition is practiced within my family as well. My paternal grandmother was the pillar of the family. She was not only a preacher and played guitar, she was the queen of the kitchen. This role was passed down to my father, who continues to cook traditional Black foods like candied yams, chitlins, hog maws and greens. Food is the center of family events, where the saying goes, ‘you rather cook too much than not enough’. It is not only unhealthy but there is a whole lot of it. This is validated by research where Fuchs found that Black Americans showed a lower adherence to a dietary approach to stop hypertension, (2011). It shows that cultural foods and over consumption maybe the cause of hypertension observed in the family.
Weather a family cookout, holiday, birthday, or Sunday dinner, my family cooks traditional food out of habit. Most often there are left overs and too much food, which can lead to over consumption and unhealthy eating patterns. However, changing these learned behaviors must be established in order to improve family health. This can be done by introducing the family to new recipes and limiting salt. Within the Black community there is a push for healthy foods. Community members are encouraged to have backyard gardens and alternative ways to make traditional foods healthy. Instead of a diet rich in pork, family cooks should use turkey or chicken alternatives. These are clean meats and great substitutes. Most cultural dishes are healthy like lima beans and collard greens but are cook saturated in salt pork. Substituting these for turkey tails or vegetarian alternatives like vegetable stock is a healthy option to reduce high blood pressure. Introducing these alternatives to the family is the best way to push for healthy traditional dishes. It can only be done by reaching out to family members such as my father, aunts, uncles and cousins that are primary cooks for their household. “The African American extended family is an important resource for effective prevention strategies and behavioral change”, (Welsh, 2009, p. 38). By providing, examples, samples, and new recipes I can change what they cook and how they cook it.
Culture has a significant influence on health and diet. By changing the diet of family members, it can reduce negative effects of hypertension. This is consistent with the research by Welsh stating that, “because African Americans on average have higher-fat, lower-fiber diets than whites, they should be encouraged to adopt alterative diets that maintain cultural traditions where possible”, (2009, p.33). Younger generations such as myself can be a positive influence on elders and family cooks. By cooking healthy foods and bring it to family functions I can not only introduce members to new recipes but also lead by example. Furthermore, my family already accommodates members with special eating habits so everyone can feel included. This includes my older cousin who does not eat pork. He often encourages members to create healthier dishes, which also pushes others to think outside the box. Helping improve family health is important, not only for the family still with me but for future generations. To ensure that high blood pressure becomes a problem of the past, I must encourage my family to practice healthy eating alternatives. It can not only reduce problems associated with hypertension but also other health problems like obesity and diabetes. Changing the recipes of traditional foods does not take away from African American culture but adds to it.
Carteret, M. (2011). Health care for African American patients/families. Dimensions of Culture:Cross-Cultural Communications for Healthcare Professionals. Retrieved from: http://www.dimensionsofculture.com/2011/05/health-care-for-african-american-patientsfamilies/
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC. (2010). A review of psychosocial factors and systems-level interventions: A closer look at African American men and high blood pressure control. U.S Department of Health and Human Services. Atlanta, Ga. Retrieved from: http://www.cdc.gov/bloodpressure/docs/african_american_sourcebook.pdf
Duckett, P. & Artiga, S. (2013). Heath coverage for the black population today and under the affordable care act. Kaiser Family Foundation. Washington, D.C. Retrieved from: http://kff.org/disparities-policy/fact-sheet/health-coverage-for-the-black-population-today-and-under-the-affordable-care-act/
Fuchs, F. (2011). Why do black Americans have higher prevalence of hypertension? An enigma still unsolved. Hypertension American Heart Association 57 p. 379-80. Retrieved from: http://hyper.ahajournals.org/content/57/3/379.full
Welch, M. (2009). Care of blacks and African Americans. Culture, Ethics, and Advance Care Planning. Alissa Hurwitz Swota. Lexington Books. New York, NY. Retrieved from: https://store.acponline.org/ebizatpro/images/productimages/books/sample%20chapters/Cultural_Ch02.pdf