Closeup view of a healthy plate of vegan soul food prepared for the NEW Soul program.
Credit: Matt McGrievy, University of South Carolina

Vegan soul food: Will it help fight heart disease, obesity?

When most people think of soul food, they think of tasty faves like collard greens, fried chicken, mac-n-cheese, and black-eyed peas. These foods are beloved by many, and they often play a big part of many African American families’ traditions. It’s an historic cuisine that thrived during slavery and traces its roots to Africa. 

But traditional soul food is often cooked with high levels of salt, fat, and pork which doesn’t meet today’s understanding of healthy eating. In fact, some health experts have pointed to soul food as a key culprit behind disproportionately high rates of obesity and heart disease affecting many people--black and white--living in the South.

It’s this unhealthy rap that got nutritionist Brie Turner-McGrievy, Ph.D., wondering: what if traditional soul food could get a plant-based, low-fat, high-fiber makeover? In other words, make it vegan—a non-dairy, non-meat way of eating that studies show can help keep potentially life-threatening conditions at bay.

Enter the Nutritious Eating with Soul (NEW Soul) study, a two-year randomized trial comparing vegan soul food to standard soul food in African American adults at risk for heart disease. The study, launched last year, is funded by the NHLBI.

Man and woman prepare vegan meal of beans and tomatoes in kitchen.
Participants in the NEW Soul program prepare a vegan meal of beans and tomatoes. Source: Brie Turner-McGrievy, University of South Carolina

“African-Americans are one of the most vulnerable groups for cardiovascular disease and obesity but often don’t enroll in nutrition studies,” said study leader Turner-McGrievy, associate professor of health promotion, education and behavior at the University of South Carolina Arnold School of Public Health. “Our unique study developed a way to target this group in a way that is culturally relevant, using traditional foods and remaking them in healthier ways.”

For the study, Turner-McGrievy’s research team recruited 159 African American adults, 18-65 years old, who are overweight or obese, not already following a vegan diet, and live in the Columbia, South Carolina area. 

The researchers partnered with local black-owned soul food restaurants and chefs to develop special nutrition interventions—mac-n-cheese made with soy-based cheese, egg- and dairy-free cornbread, collard greens without fatty meat additives, and more. The researchers divided participants into two different soul food intervention groups: Half were assigned to a vegan soul food diet, the other half to a regular soul food diet prepared using low-fat meat and dairy.

Participants attend weekly nutrition and cooking classes for the first six months, bi-weekly for the next six months, and monthly meetings for the last year. They get evaluated for changes in body weight and cardiovascular measurements such as lipids, blood pressure, glucose, and insulin levels at 6, 12, and 24 months.

“We don’t just want to hand off some recipes to people and tell them to eat healthy,” Turner-McGrievy said.  “Our interventions provide participants with information they need to be successful, like cooking classes, tips for using healthier ingredients in their food, and how to make meals that are low-cost.”

As both interventions promote increasing plant-based foods and decreasing animal-based foods, the researchers expect both groups will see health improvements by the end of the study. But the researchers hypothesize that improvements will be greater in those following the vegan diet, mainly because of its higher content of heart-healthy fruits, vegetables, and fiber.  Results of the trial will be available in 2021.

Study participant Tricia Motes cuts a zucchini squash as part of a study to develop healthy vegan soul food.
NEW Soul participant Tricia Motes cuts a zucchini squash to prepare a vegan soul food dish. Source: Brie Turner-McGrievy, University of South Carolina

So far, the program has garnered strong support, with participants enjoying connections with local soul food chefs and learning about new ways to cook.  Study participant Tricia Motes, age 66, was once diagnosed as prediabetic, a condition where blood sugar levels are higher than normal but not enough to be classified as diabetes, which is a risk factor for heart disease. She joined the program in hopes of helping her avoid diabetes, as she had a family history of the disease. 

“I used to eat brunch foods all day long: omelets, pancakes, and eggs,” she said. “Now I’ve embraced a plant-based diet and avoid eggs and cheese. I started eating a lot of scrambled tofu, black beans, and avocadoes. I’m learning how to prepare new types of vegan foods like lentils and use new spices. The foods are delicious.” She credits the program with helping reverse her prediabetes.

“Our short term goal is to help people move toward a more optimal dietary profile that includes more plant-based foods, which have been shown to be more protective against heart disease, while maintaining African American traditional cultural food choices,” Turner-McGrievy said.  The long-term goal, she said, is to gain wider acceptance of vegan soul food as a heart-healthy option.  

In fact, vegan soul food has been growing in popularity in recent years. According to a 2019 study led by Turner-McGrievy’s team, there are as many as 45 exclusively vegan soul food restaurants nationwide.  While that number may seem small compared to other restaurants, their growth means that there are more opportunities than ever for consumers to try vegan soul food, she said.

Some have even gone so far as to call vegan soul food the real soul food, as it’s closer in composition to its plant-based African origins.

Vegan diets do have drawbacks. One is that they can be challenging to adapt.  Another is that they tend to lack vitamin B12, a nutrient that helps keep the body’s nerves and blood cells healthy and which is primarily found in animal products. However, many vegan foods today are fortified with B12. 

Of course, vegan soul food does not appeal to everyone’s taste and is by no means the only answer to the nationwide challenge of heart disease and obesity, particularly in the black community, Turner-McGrievy acknowledged.  She pointed out that more long-term nutrition studies involving African Americans are needed, as well as better ways to get this vulnerable population to adopt and sustain healthier diets. Improvements in physical activity, sleep quality, and socioeconomic opportunities factor prominently into the solution, the researcher noted.

Alison Brown, Ph.D., NHLBI project officer for the NEW Soul project, welcomes the unique study. “The NEW Soul project is part of an ongoing effort by the NHLBI to find new interventions to help improve the cardiovascular health of the American people, particularly those who are most vulnerable such as African Americans,” Brown said. “African Americans are the fastest growing demographic among vegans, which makes this study timely and relevant.  We look forward to the completion of the study and any insight it can provide to improve health.”

In the meantime, soul food fans are encouraged to try to make healthier versions of this traditional cuisine by avoiding fatty meat additives, cutting back on salt, and trying out alternative herbs and spices. As with any dietary intervention, consumers are encouraged to consult with their physician to find out what food choices are best for their individual conditions.

Here are some tips on how to make soul food into healthier vegan versions, courtesy of Brie Turner- McGrievy, Ph.D., and the NEW Soul project:

  • Make your mac-n-cheese healthy and cholesterol-free by using a creamy cashew sauce.
  • Make friends with nutritional yeast—it can be used to give foods a cheesy flavor without the added fat.
  • Replace ham hocks or bacon in your collard greens with liquid smoke and flavored vinegars.
  • Replace eggs in your cornbread with applesauce or flaxseed mixed with water, and for buttermilk, mix 1 tbsp of lemon juice with 1 cup of soymilk.
  • Visit your local vegan soul food restaurant. Many offer cooking classes and menu items that show how tasty vegan soul food can be.
  • Make veggies the star. About half your plate should be fruits or vegetables. Collard greens, Brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes, and squash are flavorful seasonal vegetable options.
  • Pump up those herbs and spices. They will give your food a lot of flavor, making it less necessary to use salt and fat.