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How Soul Food Stymies African-Americans’ Low-Salt Efforts

Hemera/Thinkstock(ATLANTA) -- "I can't eat food that has no taste!" exclaim many of Dr. Khaalisha Ajala’s patients with high blood pressure in her weekly clinic.

Based in a large hospital in Atlanta, Ga., the patients love that what they eat is filled with a cultural tradition that reminds them of their moms.

Mouth watering Southern fried chicken, mac 'n' cheese and collard greens are some of the dishes that make up the genre of food that spells Americana for so many -- it's Soul Food. Its history is deeply rooted in the African-American community, handed down from generation to generation with oral histories and maybe even a funny family story that accompanies each recipe.

But these recipes often come steeped in much more than tradition.

More often than not, they are filled with unhealthy oil, fat, salt and other ingredients that increase the risk of high blood pressure, stroke, heart attacks and diabetes.

Researchers at Duke University examined the factors that would affect a person's choice to follow the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, or DASH, diet. The DASH diet recommends that patients with hypertension completely cut certain foods out of their diet with a goal of decreasing the amount of salt, fat and high sugar content, thus decreasing blood pressure.

The study, which is published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, noted that prior to beginning the diet, many of 144 overweight subjects preferred less healthy food regardless of ethnic background. However, once the study subjects began the DASH diet, African Americans in the program, although highly motivated, noted preference for traditional soul food as the reason why they did not follow all of the dietary restrictions.

The study's researchers said the root of this problem may be that cultural influences on food preference are difficult to shake.

"Families will now need to pass down new recipes to the next generation," said lead study author James A. Blumenthal, professor of behavioral medicine in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke University Medical Center.

In short, he explained, the African-American community is not unlike many others in the United States which have traditions that surround food and family. These traditions make it hard to stop using grandmother's recipes baked beans without throwing in the high-sodium bacon pieces.

"Taking into account the ethnic differences and the cultural differences that exist, adapting the recipes to make them more friendly, can be difficult," Blumenthal notes.

According to Dr. Ajala, who is African-American, when she was a child, her mom decided to change the diet of the entire household by no longer including table salt in Sunday dinners and used olive oil to sauté vegetables and baked chicken to replace fried chicken.  

Dr. Ajala believes there is a strong possibility that the DASH diet can be incorporated into soul food recipes in order to create a healthier diet while helping patients to stick to the diet.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

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