Decreasing Perceived Barriers To Veganism: A Case Study With Soul Food
Obesity is a condition that affects nearly four in 10 U.S. adults and puts their health and longevity at risk, and an unhealthy diet is a major risk factor. African-American adults have some of the highest rates of obesity among demographic groups. Structural, economic, and cultural factors, shaped by a long history of slavery, racism, and segregation, have made it especially difficult for African Americans to eat healthy diets. For example, African-American communities tend to be lower-income and in the middle of “food deserts,” making cost a higher barrier to accessing healthy foods such as fresh produce. Additionally, African-American soul food – traditionally relying on foods like pork and fried chicken, which are high in fat and cholesterol – has roots in the history of subjugation and slavery.
Plant-based diets represent an opportunity for African-Americans (and all U.S. adults) to reduce their BMIs and their risk of cardiovascular disease. Despite this, most studies on plant-based diets have failed to include diverse samples. In fact, the study discussed here – published in Elsevier’s Food Quality and Preference journal – is the first to exclusively focus on the experiences of African-American participants with plant-based diets.
The authors of this study speculated that vegan soul food restaurants could be a good way to help African-Americans stay connected to their culturally-familiar foods while eating healthier. Their study asked 30 participants – each an African-American adult living in South Carolina with a BMI above the recommended range – to follow a plant-based diet for three weeks. It should be noted that 90% of the sample was female, and 70% had a college degree or beyond. All 30 participants received support in the form of recipes, sample grocery lists, and suggested meal plans. However, participants assigned to the Standard group received gift cards to local grocery stores and were instructed to prepare all their meals at home, whereas participants assigned to the Restaurant group received gift cards to 2 local vegan soul food restaurants and were instructed to eat out a few times week.
At the end of the three-week study, participants from both groups lost weight, moving them towards a healthier BMI. Participants in the standard group lost an average of 1.6 kg (3.5 lbs) and participants in the restaurant group lost an average of 1.9 kg (4.2 lbs). Additionally, in both groups, belief in most perceived barriers to eating plant-based diets decreased. In the standard group, belief in 9/10 perceived barriers decreased whereas one (having to go grocery shopping “too often”) increased. Similarly in the restaurant group, belief in 9/10 perceived barriers decreased, but one that increased was “My family/partner won’t eat a plant-based diet.” Compared to members of the standard group, members of the restaurant group had a greater decrease in belief in the perceived barrier that plant-based foods are hard to find when going out.
Overall, members of both groups experienced an increase in belief of the perceived benefit that a plant-based diet helps the environment, and members of both also felt more satisfied after meals and with their plant-based diet overall. These results demonstrate that simply receiving information about how to maintain a plant-based diet, then trying it out, can help decrease belief in the perceived barriers to a plant-based diet, regardless of whether one prepares all their meals at home or eats out occasionally.
Vegan soul food options may help African-Americans adapt to plant-based diets that could, in turn, benefit their health. The authors suggest that future studies continue to look at ways of making plant-based food culturally relevant and decreasing the perception of barriers to plant-based diets. Advocates can help provide the public with information on recipes and tips for eating plant-based, and urge them to try eating plant-based so that they can see for themselves that it’s easier than they may perceive. Advocates can also help support vegan restaurants that make the transition to plant-based eating easier by making culturally familiar foods easily accessible.