Recently, the American College of Cardiology released a comprehensive review of foods and diets. 1 Included in this review, people were advised to avoid a Southern diet due to evidence that it negatively impacts cardiovascular health. The Southern diet is typically high in added fats and oils, fried foods, eggs, organ and processed meats, and sugar-sweetened drinks. While this report provides great information for healthy living, it doesn’t do much for my Southern palate.
As a Southerner, I grew up on the traditional methods of Southern cooking— Grits with butter and cheese, smoked meats in vegetables, and good ole sweet tea for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It’s important to understand that eating healthier doesn’t mean we have to sacrifice traditional Southern taste. Making some simple changes to traditional southern meals, like decreasing the sugar and fat content, can help you enjoy your favorite dish without sacrificing your health. Try out some of the changes below to increase the nutritional value of your next Southern meal.
- Reduce sugar sweetened beverages – Sweet tea is a Southern tried and true traditional beverage. Most Southerners enjoy sweet tea with at least one meal per day. When we go outside of that, like drinking sweet tea throughout the day our intake of sugar from liquids becomes unhealthy. Try our Slightly Sweetened Tea recipe. It offers traditional Southern flavor without too much sugar.
Slightly Sweetened Tea
4 cups water
7 green tea bags (plain or flavored like Orange Passionfruit Jasmine)
1/4 cup honey
4 cups cold water
1 navel orange, 1 cut into wedges,
1 lime, cut into wedges
1. Bring 4 cups water to a boil in a medium saucepan; add tea bags. Boil 1 minute; remove from heat. Cover and steep 10 minutes. Remove and discard tea bags.
2. Stir in honey. Pour into a 2-qt. pitcher; stir in 4 cups cold water and orange and lime wedges. Let sit for 2-4 hours. Add more fruit if desired. Serve over ice.
- Learn to oven fry (much less fat) or broil - Oven frying offers the crispiness of fried foods without the extra fat and calories. I get it, there’s nothing like Southern fried catfish or chicken. Remember moderation is key. If you are frying foods more than two times a week, give our oven fried chicken recipe a try. Also, give broiled fish a try. Most fish is delicate and doesn’t need much cooking time if it is thawed out (about 5 to 8 minutes). Here are a few quick tips:
- Use healthy fats like olive oil and canola oil (drizzle)
- Add herbs, spices, or even citrus such as lemon, lime, orange juice or zest (which works well with fish)
- Broil until crispy on the edges
- Limit processed meats - Research shows that processed meats can increase your risk of cancer and heart disease. 2 First, it’s important to know what processed meats are. Common processed meats include bacon, salami, corned beef, Spam, hot dogs, Vienna sausage, lunch meat, and bologna. Try to avoid processed meats by choosing:
- Uncured varieties
- 100% beef or 100% chicken
- Meats purchased from local farmers or small butcher shops so you can ask about the ingredients used
- Add fiber – Fiber is best known for moving food through the body. This is only one of the ways fiber contributes to good health. Fiber can also help prevent heart disease by helping to lower cholesterol. Look for opportunities to increase your fiber intake by adding more leafy greens, fruit, other vegetables, and whole grains. Also, adding in high fiber healthy snacks during the day is a great idea. Here are some of my favorites:
- Popcorn – Keep this old school. All you need is a pan, a lid, a drizzle of olive oil, and popcorn. Season with herbs and spices instead of salt. My favorite spice to use is cayenne pepper. Don’t be afraid to try other spices like paprika, chili powder, garlic, and pepper.
- Freeze grapes and peeled bananas – Seal them in a sandwich bag and throw it into the freezer. Once frozen, they're a refreshing and healthy treat.
- Eat an apple and the skin – An apple with the skin contains about three grams of fiber. The skin packs a double whammy, carrying healthy soluble fiber that helps to lower cholesterol and prevent heart disease.
- A handful of nuts – Nuts offer healthy fats and fiber.
- Prunes – Prunes are well known for their ability to “regulate.” Four prunes provide three grams of fiber.
- Berries by the cupful – Try a cupful of raspberries or blueberries to satisfy a sweet tooth and add some fiber.
- Dip it – Try your favorite cooked vegetable raw dipped in light dressing.
- Season with herbs, spices instead of fat (salt pork) – Replacing salt with herbs and spices is an excellent way to add flavor. Try some new things from the list below:
- Low sodium broths – if you make your own broth, don’t use salt
- Cooking wine
- Lemon, lime, and orange juice
- Lemon, lime, and orange zest
- If fresh herbs are not available, consider dried herbs
- Rinse and drain canned vegetables, even those that are low in sodium
- Use smoked paprika, a sprinkle of smoked salt, or liquid smoke to enhance flavor in place of high fat meats like bacon, ham hocks, neck bones, or salt meat
- Don’t forget about the basics: onions, peppers, and garlic
Try some of our heart healthy recipes that have a Southern flair like our Cajun Oven Fried Catfish, Shrimp and Grits, or Butter Bean Burgers. If you already have a Boston Heart Personalized Nutrition and Life Plan, you can request a full 7-day Southern Menu or request additional assistance in making healthful changes to your Southern eating style by asking your Boston Heart Registered Dietitian Coach.
Also, keep in mind that not all Southern food is fried and/or covered in gravy. Presently, there is a huge movement in the South that focuses on farm to table— a tradition many Southerners grew up on. For example, picking greens and okra from the garden in the morning for dinner in the evening.
With a few tweaks to our traditional cooking methods, Southern foods can fit perfectly into a healthy diet
1 Freeman, et al. Cardiovascular Nutrition Controversies. JACC 2017;69(9):1172-87.
2 Wang, et al. Red and processed meat consumption and mortality: dose-response meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies. Public Health Nutr 2016; 19(5):893-905.