The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

NEW AFRICAN HERITAGE DIET PYRAMID: Cultural Model for Promoting Health Through Heritage

NEW AFRICAN HERITAGE DIET PYRAMID: Cultural Model for Promoting Health Through Heritage

Health and Wellness

November 27, 2011

Guest columnist, Sara Baer-Sinnott, President, Oldways

Type 2 diabetes, obesity and heart disease are not a true part of African American heritage, and, in fact, scientific studies show that conditions like these skyrocket as traditional diets are left behind. To help reclaim good health, Oldways, along with an advisory team of experts, recently unveiled The African Heritage Diet Pyramid, an evidence-based and practical tool for African American communities. 

The pyramid is based on the traditional diets of the African Diaspora – Africa, the Caribbean, South America and the American South – that offer a powerful, affordable, healthy eating model and meet the guidelines promoted today by health professionals everywhere. The added bonus is that the foods found in the pyramid are easily accessible at local grocery stores.

To create the African Heritage Diet Pyramid, made possible through a grant from the Walmart Foundation, Oldways worked with nutrition scientists, health experts, and culinary historians. The pyramid is based on scientific research that shows eating like your ancestors can help:

  • Lower risk of heart disease, high blood pressure & stroke
  • Avoid or help treat diabetes
  • Fight certain cancers and many chronic diseases
  • Reduce asthma, glaucoma, and kidney disease
  • Nurture healthy babies
  • Achieve a healthy weight and avoid obesity
  • Reduce depression
  • And more

The initiative has gained extraordinary support from health professionals as well as groups such as UNCF.

“In my work with the African American community, I see a general lack of education in terms of the foods their ancestors prepared and enjoyed; today these food connections are all but lost,” said Constance Brown-Riggs, MSED, RD and author, The African American Guide to Living Well with Diabetes. “This pyramid is an important new educational tool; it is an innovative way that we, as health professionals, can communicate with, connect to and educate African Americans.”

The African Heritage Diet Pyramid, depicting an overall total diet, includes recommendations, which retailers can highlight in-store, such as:

  • Every meal should include greens like spinach, collards, mustards and turnip greens and/or other vegetables, fruits, mostly whole grains and cereals, beans, peanuts and nuts, and healthy tubers like sweet potatoes.
  • Herbs and spices and also marinades and home made sauces are important – particularly because they give the regional flavor of the dish – making rice and beans Caribbean rather than African.
  • Fish and seafood, especially tuna, mackerel and salmon which are rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, are recommended at least two times per week.
  • Use small amounts of healthy oils, like sesame or olive oil for dressings, and canola, red palm oil, or extra virgin coconut oil for cooking.
  • Eat eggs, poultry and other meats moderately.
  • Consume dairy in small portions.
  • Sweets, at the top of the pyramid, are foods to eat occasionally.

To show how to combine healthy foods in the pyramid into specific meals, Oldways introduced plates, or dishes, and recipes used as expressions of the cuisines of specific cultures in the four Diasporan regions. 

Oldways has created a user-friendly African Heritage 101 brochure as a resource and retailers are invited to order copies for distribution to their customers. It is also available as a free download on the Oldways website. Another online resource is an African Heritage & Health Portal, which includes grocery lists, recipes and other heritage information. Please visit: http://www.oldwayspt.org/african-heritage-diet.

This is the fifth in Oldways’ family of healthy eating pyramids using cultural models to inspire healthy eating. These pyramids have been used by millions of people and are seen in homes, doctors’ offices, supermarkets, RD offices, cookbooks, journal articles, textbooks, and more throughout the world. 


Sara Baer-Sinnott is President of Oldways (www.oldwayspt.org), a nonprofit food and nutrition education organization, with a mission to guide people to good health through heritage, using practical and positive programs grounded in science and tradition. Simply, we advocate for the healthful pleasures of real food. It is the parent organization for The Whole Grains Council and The Mediterranean Foods Alliance, and is well-known for creating the Whole Grain Stamp and the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid.