Vegetarian diet in Black communities.
No, it is not a new thing and yes it is super important to reclaim a space for Black vegetarianism. Here is why.
Across the black diaspora worldwide many communities adhere to vegetarian and other forms of plant-based diets. Popular examples include the Rastafari community who follow the Ital diet, the Nation of Islam community and the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem, each of which recommend their members follow a vegetarian diet. The Coptic Christians of Egypt and the Orthodox Ethiopians also regularly abstain from consuming animals and animal “products” for fasts and specific periods.
This trend is seen across many countries in Africa. In a research project on the world’s healthiest diets West African countries, such as Mali, Chad, Senegal and Sierra Leone, topped the list of countries with less meat and more fruits, vegetables and whole grains in their diets. When looking at meat consumption across the world, the African continent shows the least consumption across the globe. Yet, mainstream vegetarianism is largely considered a white movement, at least in the west. Why?
The western stereotype of a vegetarian person
If you search “vegetarian person” on Google, most images will be of slim Caucasian people eating a salad. Spend a couple more minutes searching “vegetarian food” and you will likely come across thousands other pictures of salad bowls followed by recipes of vegetarian dishes from Asian or Afro-Caribbean communities, written by white cooks. Same for a search of “best-selling vegetarian cookbook” on Amazon, little to no Black, Asian or other non-Caucasian people in the top 20 or more books. Seeing pictures of salads when searching for vegetarian food is not wrong and a Caucasian chef has the right to cook and share recipes from across the world. But representation matters.
When all we see when looking for the word “vegetarian” (and all its associated terms) is a sea of white faces, it is easy to assume that it is indeed a white movement. Unilaterally associating vegetarianism with a Caucasian lifestyle dismisses the presence of other vegetarian and plant based communities across the world. Doing so erases the varied and often centuries long historical reasons why these communities have been following plant-based diets, reasons which are often intrinsically linked to their culture, religious beliefs, traditions and geographical influences.
Vegetarianism as a sign of privilege (in the West)
Another reason people associate vegetarianism with whiteness. There are significant barriers to accessing fresh, local, and healthy food for low-income populations in the UK, most of which are black and racial minorities. Our society has for too long focused on “inexpensive, high volume, energy dense” food production, that favours highly processed meat based food products targeting the biggest part of the population (also the poorest) for maximal profit.
Eating pant-based is certainly possible without breaking the bank, but it often requires visiting multiple locations for your grocery list, or spending time learning where to find cheap veggies, or how to work with whatever veggies were on sale that day. Therefore, the notion of being a non-meat eater can at times seem “bourgeois” or “picky”.
It is no surprise that Vegetarianism has a cultural reputation (in the West) for being a sign of wealth. It is clearly associated with a certain socio-economic status, hence indirectly linking it to those of a privileged background or with being white.
The Plant-based versus Black Food narrative
Unfortunately, the narrative that a plant-based diet or vegetarianism is only for white people is detrimental to black communities.
During conversations with various Black people around me, I realise that some have internalised the narrative and believe that reducing or stopping meat consumption is a rejection of Black culture and identity. Vegetarianism and plant-based diets are being pitched against the stereotypical idea of what “Black soul food” is or “authentic Black food”.
Areas with a significant black population are targeted by places offering cheap, nutrient poor and mostly meat based food. Neighbourhoods are filled with fast food chains and fried chicken shops and not enough affordable options of healthy food. Debunking the myth the plant-based diets are only for affluent White people is also about breaking the stereotypes of Black and Afro cuisine and democratising access to healthier food options which is essential for a healthy diet whether you are vegetarian or not.
Food and the public health crisis in Black communities
Reclaiming a space for black vegetarianism and plant base diets in our society has a strong and imperative motive: health.
Unhealthy eating habits with diets poor in vegetables and leafy greens have strongly contributed to a steep rise in non-communicable diseases (NCDs) within Black communities. In the US, the UK and other Western countries, NCDs including obesity, cardiovascular diseases and, diabetes, disproportionately affect people of Afro-descent at a higher rate than other groups. In Africa and the Caribbean, NCDs are also on the rise. One of the main reason why we see this is because of a change in dietary pattern with increased processed meat consumption as these countries go through an accelerated nutrition transition linked to a socio-economic transition.
Choosing a plant-based diet is a personal vote for a healthier life and an attempt to break the statistical pattern of life-threatening illnesses connected to diet and nutrition that have for too long affected their families and communities.
I am not advocating for people to go vegetarian and let me be clear going vegetarian is not a guarantee of good health at all. However, reducing processed meat consumption and shifting to a plant-centred diet can improve health in Black communities. Now, want to increase your vegetable consumption or try a plant-based diet?
Here are five quick 5 tips:
- Add first rather than taking away. Make sure twice a day at least your plate has greens on it. I do not mean lettuce; I mean dark leafy greens like spinach, kale, collard greens, broccoli etc.
- Educate yourself about plant based dishes and vegetables in your culture. Be curious and explore the diverse and nutrient-rich products and dishes that you may not know about.
- Eat what you need. We all have different physiology, bodily constitution, ages, health statuses and lifestyle. Make sure you research what you specifically need. Be in tune with your body to notice how it responds to any change in your diet.
- Aim for healthier, not just vegetarian. As I said above, plant-based is not always healthier. Avoid over processed dishes, overly fried food even if they are vegetarian. Healthier is the goal, think holistically and try to integrate all elements of good health (optimal nutrition, hydration, sleep and physical activity).
- Get a professional opinion. As always, if you are thinking of doing any radical changes to your diet and especially if you are pregnant or have any particular condition. Speak with a doctor, accredited nutritionist or dietician who can advise.
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