Heart-Healthy Diet Tips for Soul Food and Comfort Food

Making heart-healthy changes doesn’t mean you have to give up your family’s favorite foods.

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When you search heart-healthy recipes online, you might not always see the comfort food of your own family represented in the results. Often, nutrition advice caters to a white and middle-class audience. Sure, people of all races can eat kale, quinoa, and salmon. However, Black Americans should not have to choose between abandoning their family’s favorite foods and taking care of their heart.

“This is the way I remember my grandmother's recipes. This is the way I can enjoy my mother's recipes, and it's not something that I particularly plan to get rid of or to abandon. I want to maintain those memories,” says David Anstey, MD, cardiologist at Columbia University Irving Medical Center.

The Pitfalls of Soul Food

Many of the aspects of comfort food and soul food may have a negative effect on heart health. These include:

  • Deep frying: Fried foods are high in fat, which may increase calorie intake and/or hurt cholesterol levels.
  • Use of butter, cheese, and heavy cream: These dairy products are high in saturated fat, which is the type of fat that may increase LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels. This may lead to plaque buildup in the arteries.
  • Sugar-sweetened beverages: Sweet teas, fruit juices, and sodas are high in added sugar, which can contribute to weight gain.
  • High levels of sodium: Fast food, processed meats (such as bacon), and canned foods are often high in sodium, which may increase blood pressure.
  • Low intake of fruits and vegetables: Comfort food is notoriously low in vegetables (except for potatoes). Fruits and vegetables offer fiber, vitamins, and minerals that can help with weight, cholesterol levels, and overall health.

One concern is that many Black Americans live in areas known as food deserts. These are neighborhoods or communities that lack consistent access to fresh and affordable fruits and vegetables. People in these communities may have to rely on convenience stores and fast food restaurants for meals. As a result, making healthy food choices can be particularly challenging.

Heart-Healthy Changes for Comfort Food

Dr. Anstey recommends making starting with small, smart changes to your favorite recipes. You don’t have to ditch your family’s comfort food to eat a healthier diet. You don’t have to abandon your culture to have a healthier heart.

Here are examples of heart-healthy changes for comfort food:

  • Add fruits and vegetables: Whenever possible, add more produce to your meals. If you shop at convenience stores or bodegas, look for options like canned peas, frozen spinach, canned peaches (with no added sugar), or jarred applesauce.
  • Switch to vegetable oils: Instead of butter or lard, cook with olive oil, peanut oil, or canola oil. This can reduce saturated fats in the diet.
  • Avoid deep frying: Save fried foods for special occasions. For your day-to-day diet, try grilling, broiling, steaming, and roasting.
  • Limit salt: Rely on other spices, herbs, and aromatics (garlic and onion) to add flavor to food. This can help reduce sodium in food. When shopping, buying fresh ingredients will help to limit sodium. If this isn’t an option, look for reduced-sodium versions of canned ingredients.
  • Use whole grains: Look for brown rice, whole-wheat bread, and whole-wheat pasta. This can add fiber to your meals, which may help with blood sugar levels. Learn more here about how diabetes affects heart health.
  • Choose unsweetened drinks: Drink water, seltzer, or unsweetened tea when possible. Save sodas and sweet teas for special occasions.

“These are little changes we can make that can help us still have a tasty meal and still keep our traditions alive, but also make sure that we're there to see the next generation and we can live a long and healthy life,” says Dr. Anstey.