Slave Food: The Last Barrier to Freedom

Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

Two African American doctors explore the history of “Slave Food” to answer the questions: Why do black people in America live sicker and die sooner than other ethnic groups? And what, if anything, can be done about it?

Ironically, the Slave Food journey began at a meal among old college friends. The conversation was filled with laughter and stories from the past, when out of the blue, one friend asked an honest yet probing question: “What’s the deal with Black people?” As the words left his mouth, the table conversation quieted, and all eyes darted in his direction. “Why are we sicker?” Our friend explained that he was urged to have a prostate check an a colon cancer screening at an earlier age than his white colleagues and when he asked his doctor the reason for the recommendations, the doctor said it was “because he was Black.”

Because he was Black? Those words awakened painful memories of family and friends who not only seemed to live sicker, but oftentimes die sooner. I [Dr. Batiste] recalled my father’s battle with diabetes and how it shortened his life and health span, leaving him a shell of a man. “Because he was Black” reminded more of a post-slavery extinction theory that states, “Black people are inferior and their diseases are just a result of that inferiority…”

In that moment, we decided to reject the hypothesis that Black people in America must live sicker and die sooner because they are genetically inferior. And so my friends and I set out to find and prove an alternative hypothesis, supported by scientific literature, to unearth why Black people live sicker and die sooner.

What is evident after reviewing the literature is that disparities in health hold true irrespective of education, celebrity status, or financial wealth. The human genome project (circa 1990) revealed that 99.9% of our DNA is shared with every other human on this planet. Harvard University published an article highlighting how the few differences that do exist between racial groups reflect differences in the environment and external factors, not core biology.

Acute Reckoning

If genetics are not the source of increased disease, burden, and early death, then what is the cause of the environmental and external factors?

The answer is stress, acute and chronic stress. Acute stress is a short-lived physiologic response designed to aid survival in a world of imminent threats. Chronic stress, on the other hand, provokes a constant physiologic response that results in increased disease risk. Chronic stress has been associated with mental illness, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, stroke, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease.

Studies have shown that Americans are experiencing increasing amounts of stress from politics, health, climate change, and the economy. African Americans experience all of these stressors in addition to a unique stressor: racial discrimination. Understanding racism as a stressor is key to unlocking the question of why health disparities exist.

2020 exposed these two dynamics – health and racial disparities – in Black and white, if you will. The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the increased disease burden African Americans carry. African Americans confronted racism in the stories of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others. Each time the killing of an African American is reported, many viewing the tragic events see themselves, or their loved ones, as potential victims and the stress response is triggered over again. The events of 2020 trained our focus to these external events and stressors.

According to Stress in American 2020: Stress in The Time of COVID-19, Volume Two a study done by the American Psychological Association, 55% of Black adults say discrimination is a significant source of stress. Seven in 10 Americans say police violence towards minorities is a significant source of stress.

Studies have also confirmed that racial insults do not have to be overt, many take the form of micro-aggressions. These small repetitive insults add up and damage our health. Racial stress has been associated with increased mental health issues, cancer diagnoses, heart disease, carotid artery narrowing, diabetes, obesity, infant mortality and shortened telomeres (a genetic marker of longevity).

Tell-Tale Signs in the Telomers of Young Black Men

Dr. David Chae and a team of researchers outline how racial discrimination can effect telomer length in African American men. The study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine draws a line between racial discrimination and telomer length. Telomers cap the end of chromosomes, like shoe strings have plastic cups to protect them. Instead of plastic these are DNA sequences that act as biomarkers for biological aging. As humans age telomers shorten.

Studies support the notion that if they shorten too fast they correlate to an increased likelihood of premature death. Dr. Chae, et al, writes, “results suggest that multiple levels of racism, including interpersonal experiences of racial discrimination and the internalization of racial discrimination and the internalization of negative racial bias, operate jointly to accelerate biological aging among African American men.” In short, young African American men can have the telomer lengths of elderly men of other races due to the increased burden of racial stress.

Can You Say Die-t?

What does this analysis of racial disparity and systemic racism have to do with “slave food”? Of all the environmental stressors that affect our lives, our diets may be one of the few practices we can control, to some extent. And, we have unwittingly passed down dietary preferences that are racialized and induce illness and disease.

During slavery, enslaved African Americans were fed the poorest quality food – what the slave owners refused to eat. While ‘massa’ ate “high on the hog” the slaves’ diet came from the junk parts of the animals. These parts included intestines, feet, and the snout of pigs as well as the neck, feet and gizzards of chickens. Biblically, all of the pig is unclean, and from a nutritional standpoint there may not have been much difference in the foot (slave’s food) or the loin (master’s food) of a pig per se. However, from a caloric standpoint there would have been a significant difference.

A plantation full of slaves would have to share the scraps from a pig and of course get very little of the plant foods that may have grown on the plantation. Frederick Douglass in his memoir records, “rations consisted of a monthly allowance of a bushel of third-rate corn, pickled port (which was “often tainted”) and “poorest quality herrings” – barely enough to sustain grown men and women through their backbreaking labors in the field.”

Plantation owners fed enslaved persons only the refuse to maximize profits, while depriving them of enough nutritional energy to rebel or escape. We are the descendants of the most magnificent survivors. The hell they faced daily was intensified by the lack of nutrition they received. Yet, after working all day in the fields many slaves would have a small plot of land where they would grow food and hence improve their survivability. The challenge of good nutrition did not stop our ancestors from building this country and contributing significantly to every part of its being.

Slave Food For Thought

Today’s slave food is extremely profitable. It exists in the form of highly-processed, food-like substances, and poorly raised animal products. This food keeps us from being liberated from the modern-day plantation of ill health and shortened lives. We now consume enough malnutrition to exist but not enough to empower folk to rise up and fight for a better life.

Wouldn’t it be interesting to hear Frederick Douglass’ thoughts on the diet of many of us today? Just as the institution of slavery was subsidized by the government that allowed it, so today are the chains of poor health subsidized by tax dollars for genetically modified crops such as corn, soy, and wheat grown by big agriculture. This food is linked with animal products and produced in unhealthy and unethical ways. In fact, most of the animals eaten do not get to roam free, are fed antibiotics and even given steroids so they will grow faster and fatter.

This modern diet does not simply make one a slave by its deleterious effects on the body, but by its addicting effects on the mind. We recently discussed this with Michael Moss author of Salt, Sugar and Eat and the soon to be released book, Hooked. Using food science and an understanding of the brain’s reward centers, big corporations create or alter foods that can sit on the shelf for long periods of time and live up to the slogan, “once you pop, you can’t stop.”

We often turn to modern-day slave food for temporary comfort from the unrelenting stressors we experience. As one nutritionist says, “Stressed is desserts spelled backwards.” Eating desserts or dessert-like foods are a coping mechanism for many who experience stress. These comfort foods that are rich in salt, sugar, and fat add another layer of stress: nutritional stress.

Of Soul Food and Nutritional Stress

Nutritional stress is created by foods that are poor in nutrients and rich in empty calories. It is more than just the result of eating unhealthy food. It is in not eating nutrient dense foods. The key is to eat natural, unprocessed, whole plant foods. These foods rich in vitamins, minerals, enzymes, and antioxidants, protect against oxidative stress, and inflammation, which are root causes of disease.

Most of us have an emotional affinity to the foods we eat, whether junk food, fast foods or “soul” food. African Americans are more likely to live near fast food restaurants, in food deserts (areas with limited access to healthy food), and food swamps (abundant access to unhealthy food). Proximity to fast food has been associated with an increased burden of chronic disease. Furthermore, a study done in Houston called the Project CHURCH research study led by Dr. Lorraine Reitzel shows that these neighborhood influences contribute to obesity and chronic disease, especially for Black women.

So, now that we have begun to expose how food has been weaponized, you and your family can protect yourself by following a simple whole food plant-based diet. We will expound on this more in our next article for Message.

More from Dr. Columbus Batiste and Dr. Eric Walsh

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