Summertime is coming to an end, but not before we fire up our grills and clean our backyard pools for the last black staple of the season: the Labor Day kickback! It's common practice for black families to come together over delicious food and drinks at the cookout. While we prioritize family fun during these warm weather functions, we generally don't pay much attention to the long term effects our meal choices have on our health.

Before we gather for Labor Day, perhaps now would be a better time than ever to implement eating healthier as common diet & lifestyle routine. To help us with that, we've spoken to Dr. Garth Graham, black cardiologist and president of The Aetna Foundation, to provide insight on current diet trends in the black American community. Beyond this, we can find ways to remedy the ailments that have plagued black people for generations.  


How often, in your experience, have black men and women come to you seeking diet & health expertise?

Garth Graham: I see patients from all walks of life as a cardiologist, and as the head of the Aetna Foundation, my teams do a lot of work in communities across the country. Because I have the opportunity to see public health both on the front lines as a physician and through my work at the Foundation, I’m seeing countless patients and individuals who are disproportionately impacted by disparities in health care.

What are some common diet & lifestyle choices we make in our community that contribute directly to health disparities like, heart failure?

GG: Aside from direct diet and lifestyle choices, the path to heart-related health disparities for many African Americans starts with genetics. According to the American Heart Association, many African Americans carry a gene that may make them more salt-sensitive, meaning that they are more likely to be affected by hypertension, obesity and other conditions that relate to heart failure and disease. Be sure to talk to your relatives and your physician about your family health history in order to understand how genetics may impact you.

You also have to look at environmental factors. The National Institute of Health reports that there is limited access to supermarkets and grocery stores in low-income areas, and that this may represent a significant barrier to healthy food access in urban communities. Neighborhoods that lack access to fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains are considered food deserts, and according to Johns Hopkins Magazine, are mostly comprised of African Americans and Latinos. If there isn’t a grocery store in your neighborhood or nearby, it may take several buses or subway stops to get to the store, which requires additional fees, just to get access to healthy foods.

Lastly, there are social factors at play. We make lifestyle choices every day that increase our risk for cardiovascular disease, and that includes eating some of our favorite foods.

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The cookout is a staple in African American culture. What are some statistics pertaining to unhealthy food consumptions during cookout season that you may have that you're willing to provide?

GG: It’s no secret that when we are enjoying good company, especially on a holiday or special occasion, we tend to incorporate food as a bonding factor. In fact, the American Institute for Cancer Research has stated that, in some families, eating large amounts of foods is viewed as an essential component of a family gathering.

We know that cookouts call for two things: eating good food, and eating a lot of it. Just because there’s an extra rack of ribs on the grill or your mom’s favorite mac n’ cheese recipe on the table, it doesn’t mean you need to go back for thirds.  People tend to overeat when they’re celebrating, and overindulge with large portions and sugary beverages. Be practical at your next get-together. Enjoy all your favorite family recipes, but enjoy in moderation.

Flavor is everything to us. What are some tips you can offer up that can simultaneously satisfy health consciousness as well as our taste buds?

GG: Eating healthy does not mean giving up on flavor. One sure-fire way to make sure you get to eat something healthy that you also enjoy is to bring a couple of side dishes with you. Introduce your family to a new healthy dish that you love and rest easy knowing there will be at least one or two healthy options on the table.

Another tip is to lay off the sauces. Toppings like BBQ sauce and ketchup are filled with empty calories and sugar, so cutting back on these items is a small compromise that makes a big difference.

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Since breaking into a new diet, or even subtly shifting certain eating habits, can be easier said than done, describe the change in mentality required to implement any changes.

GG: Looking at the statistics can be a wake-up call to shake up your thinking around diet. The American Heart Association states that high blood pressure, which increases your risk of heart disease and stroke, is the highest in the world amongst African Americans. That doesn’t mean that you have to resign yourself to this fate. Making a few simple lifestyle changes can drastically reduce your risk.

Cutting back also doesn’t mean cutting out. I’d never suggest completely eliminating your favorite meals. You can still honor your family traditions and indulge from time to time as long as that is part of an overall healthy lifestyle that includes eating fresh fruits and vegetables and getting regular exercise. Making healthy lifestyle changes can be difficult, but you can make it easier on yourself by using it as an opportunity to try new things, while still occasionally treating yourself to some of your old favorites.

What role does age/gender play in making healthy diet/lifestyle choices in the black community?

GG: The College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at Ohio State University references African Americans’ historical traditions of celebrations surrounding food. Elders may tell you that “soul food” expresses cultural spirit and love. Elderly people may also be using older cooking practices from when they had fewer resources, and society was less health-conscious.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably a millennial, and you are doing a great job at shining a light on health disparities. According to the School of Public Health at Boston University, millennials have shown a clear interest in advancing social justice and improving the social, economic and environmental conditions that shape the health of populations.

In addition to public involvement, take this opportunity to chat with the elders in your family about taking steps towards a healthier diet.

What are some ways you can incorporate healthy choices into your family's diet?