Using Our History to Plan a Healthy Future

Written by admin   // April 22, 2010   // 0 Comments

I have been asked by several readers who have been following my articles to provide information on healthy living, like what foods we should eat and other ways of becoming and staying healthy.

Instead of reinventing the wheel, I started looking at some of the work that has been done previously by others rather than reinventing the wheel. We have to understand our history to begin to deal with our current and future health needs.

There are many black scholars who have researched what we as a people need to do because they care about us and care about the state of the community.  One such person is Dr. Barbara Dixon.

Dixon is a nutritionist who wrote a book, “Good Health for African Americans.”  The things that she said in this book back in 1994 are still so meaningful today.

In her book, Dixon first talks about what she calls the major health elements that affect the lives of African Americans.  They are as follows:

  1. Old traditions that influence the foods we choose and the way we prepare them.  These can be traced back to Africa, through changes that occurred in early slave days in the American South, and into modern urban life.
  2. Modern eating habits. Studies show that what African Americans eat may be killing them.
  3. Genetic factors- specific markers that make blacks, like other groups, vulnerable or resistant to certain diseases. For example, why do well educated, affluent African Americans have soaring incidence of hypertension and heart disease?  Or what is behind the “salt sensitivity” that causes many blacks to retain salt under stress rather than excrete it as most other populations do?
  4. Destructive lifestyle practices – smoking, alcohol, drugs—that come to define the self-image of too many African Americans.
  5. Black Stress: a steady, subdued rage that researchers now believe is the root cause of ill health.  It can make hypertension and other diseases worse, or stimulate dormant illness.
  6. Cultural beliefs, folklore, and home cures, along with the well-documented negative approach of health professionals to black Americans, that influence the way we seek, find, and use medical help.

She discusses three distinct periods in our lives that have an effect on our health. She describes them as: 1) The African Chronicles; 2) Africans in Slavery; and 3) African Americans in the Twentieth Century.  Obviously I cannot do her work justice in this small article, but I want to give you the highlights that I believe are so important for us to become grounded in making decisions to move forward with our lives.

  1. The African Chronicles:  Most studies show that African Americans were healthier prior to coming to this country.   (Even now, in 2010, studies continue to show that first generation African women who come to this country have birth outcomes similar to whites. However, after they have been here a while, their birth outcomes become very poor like African Americans who have been here for generations).  Eating habits were different, with a higher tendency of eating more beans, fruits, yams, peanuts and not a lot of red meat, egg plant, whole grains, etc.

In the African Chronicles era, it is noted that we ate some fried foods, but not in large amounts and only ate two meals a day with less calories.  (We know everything is supersized today).  We obtained plenty of exercise.  We were hunters and gathers, as the basis for food was agricultural.

  1. Africans in Slavery:  Like other populations, Africans had certain resistance to disease.  This was based on millions of genes, handed down though many generations.  One physiological difference, perhaps a rapid evolutionary adaptation that occurred during the slave trade, which might have helped slaves survive the heat better, was an inherent ability to retain vital body salts.  It may have helped protect slaves against dehydration, and heat stroke.

Slaves had poor nutrition, which led to lower immune systems. Dark skin does protect against sun damage, but does not absorb Vitamin D.  Because slaves did not have access to fresh fruits the way they did in Africa, many children developed rickets called “weak bones.”  Pork was the primary meat for the slaves.

  1. The Twentieth Century: Food remains scarce just as it did during slavery.  African Americans experimented with wild vegetables such as dandelions greens, lamb’s quarter, marigold leaves, etc.  Pork, especially salt pork, remained the primary meat for Black Americans.

The health of Black Americans after slavery continued to deteriorate. Black Americans were predicted to become extinct.

The use of salt in food has created a major health problem for African Americans in this country.  The “salt sensitivity” is a genetic mutation in most Black people.  It may have been a beneficial mutation that occurred thousands of years ago among people who survived the torrid African climate.  Or it may have occurred in a period of rapid evolutionary adaptation that took place during the slave trade.

What this means is that for blacks instead of releasing sodium through sweat and urine, our kidneys retain salt.  It helps the body conserve fluids.  But when people with extremely high salt sensitivity began to eat more salt, the helpful mechanism became a disadvantage.

The other issue is obesity and diabetes.  This had come as a result of a more sedentary way of life.  We are no longer in the fields or doing a lot of direct labor.  Both we have not cut back on how we eat or prepare our foods.  We have food high in calories, salt, fats and sugar.  We don’t need all this any more but we crave it, because it has become a way of life.

So now that we have the historical basis of our health problems, next week we will discuss realistically what to do about it.  See you then!!!


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