Nobody does Thanksgiving like African-American families, but as the statistics and disparities continue to rise when it comes to African-Americans and diseases like diabetes, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease, giving some thought to healthier versions of those favorite holiday dishes is something to consider for yourself and family.
If you haven’t noticed, a food revolution is taking place among African-Americans who’ve realized the direct link between the food they eat and their health.
According to Tracye Lynn McQuirter, 51, a 30-year vegan, best-selling author, public health nutritionist, activist, speaker, and vegan trailblazer, there’s an estimated 1.4 million African-American vegans and vegetarians; three percent of the Black population is choosing healthier diets.
McQuirter acknowledges African Americans are facing a health crisis and that Black women comprise the heftiest group in the nation—80 percent are overweight and 50 percent are obese.
Decades of studies show that chronic diseases can be prevented and even reversed with a plant-based diet.
“For Thanksgiving, I recommend a completely whole food, plant-based holiday meal,” McQuirter said. “That’s all that I teach. It’s the healthiest way for us to eat and I do not tip-toe around that, but most of us don’t know how. We’re masters of meat and dairy. Considering the Thanksgiving holiday is so racist and problematic, we as African-Americans, we’re not celebrating the racist history behind the holiday. We reinvented it to make it work for us. It’s a celebration of family and food so therefore we can also re-invent the meal and still have greens and all the traditional sides using plant-based ingredients. Instead of having turkey, we can use ingredients from the season. There’s no need to have a dead bird on your plate as part of your Thanksgiving meal.”
What does a Thanksgiving dinner consist of for McQuirter’s family?
“It depends on what we feel like having,” McQuirter said. “We may have red, yellow, and green bell peppers stuffed with wild rice, vegetables, walnuts that we season with the flavor of the season. Even households that are not vegetarian or vegan are using plant-based ingredients such as herbs to season their foods. Those herb ingredients are what give the Thanksgiving meal its taste so you can use vegetables and get that familiar Thanksgiving taste. We also may have a vegetable pot pie and vegan mac and cheese. We have a recipe for healthier pecan pie where we cut out the eggs, milk and butter.”
For McQuirter, sharing with people how to become healthy vegans is her passion and her life’s work. She believes being vegan is not about deprivation but about practicing love, freedom, and joy.
McQuirter wrote her first book, By Any Greens Necessary, because she wanted to write a book that hadn’t been written that focused specifically on African-American women on how to transition to a healthier lifestyle.
Embracing a vegan or vegetarian diet, for some, can be a challenging journey. Some people find it difficult to give up meat, salt, and saturated fats, dairy and refined products.
The same is true for McQuirter who, when growing up, hated any food that looked healthy, especially vegetables. If it wasn’t “greasy, creamy or sugary,” she didn’t want it.
As a seventh-grade student at the Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C., McQuirter went as far as to write a petition against two of her teachers who wanted to make her class camping trip all-vegetarian. McQuirter was overruled.
In her first year at Amherst College, McQuirter gained 25 pounds because she was away from home for the first time and could eat any unhealthy thing she wanted.
It was during her sophomore year that her path would cross with the late Dick Gregory, who was a guest speaker at her campus, to talk about the state of Black America. Gregory instead, decided to talk about the “plates” of Black America, and how most Black people eat.
During his two-hour talk, Gregory graphically traced the path of a hamburger from the cow on a factory farm, through the slaughterhouse process, to the fast food restaurant, to the clogged artery, to the heart attack– something that changed her world and how she thinks about food today.
“I was already going through a paradigm shift at the time, as a result of the courses I was taking on racism, sexism, classism, and more,” McQuirter shared in her bio. “So I was open to questioning the way society dictated what I should eat, as well.”
After Gregory’s lecture, McQuirter immediately gave up meat–but that only lasted about a week. However she couldn’t get what Gregory said out of her mind so she went home for the summer and read every book she could find about vegetarianism at her local libraries. Her mother and sister also read them. And by the end of that summer, they all decided to go vegetarian.
McQuirter’s vegan journey had challenges but she eventually made it through.
So what does it mean to eat a whole food, plant-based diet?
“Eating a whole food, plant-based diet means you’re eating foods that are not processed or minimally processed. Foods that you don’t eat are foods such as white bread and sugar or any refined products, animal proteins or foods that are higher in saturated fats. The whole food, plant-based diet is higher in fiber and nutrients. Fiber is essential in the diet. It’s what keeps arteries from being clogged.
In an interview for McQuirter’s free downloadable, By Any Greens Necessary African-American Vegan Starter Guide, which contains a wealth of great information that every Black household should have, Vegan Physician Dr. Milton Mills said “(fiber) is broken down by bacteria in our large intestine to produce a number of different compounds that help improve our mental functioning, help improve the health of our central nervous system by helping it function more efficiently, help lower cholesterol and blood pressure, and reduce the risk for heart disease and cancer.”
The number one killer on the planet is heart disease, which accounts for one in four deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What makes heart disease so deadly is the progressive buildup of plaque in the arteries, which narrows the inner walls, restricting and ultimately blocking the flow of blood.
Arteries are the blood vessels that deliver oxygen-rich blood from the heart to different tissues in the body. When plaque builds up and blood flow becomes inhibited, these clogged or blocked arteries can lead to more serious problems such as heart attack, stroke and other cardiovascular diseases.
Mills explained further why we contract all those chronic diseases when we veer away from a whole food, plant-based diet. “We are, from a physiologic and anatomic perspective, plant eaters or herbivores. So when we depart from that diet and start eating diets that are high in animal foods, these toxic foods cause dysregulation of metabolic genes and ultimately manifests themselves as disease, like high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes.”
When asked how she feels working with people who are suffering from preventable, diet-related chronic diseases, Mills replied, “It’s frequently very heartbreaking to see people suffering and dying from diseases that could have been prevented if they had better information. At the same time, it’s gratifying to be able to help my patients heal themselves from these diseases by eating a vegan diet.”
Ten of the best foods to include in your holiday meal that can free your arteries of build-up are asparagus, avocado, broccoli, nuts, olive oil, watermelon, turmeric, spinach, whole grains.
As for the tenth artery cleansing food, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends eating fish at least twice per week to reduce plaque build-up. Baked and grilled fish are the most optimal for heart health.
However, fish is not something that McQuirter as a vegan would recommend.
“Fish can be worse because it’s filled with industrial pollutants like aluminum and mercury, which can’t be cooked out,” McQuirter said.
Thanksgiving for Diabetics
Compared to the general population, African Americans are disproportionately affected by diabetes with 13.2 percent of all African Americans aged 20 years or older diagnosed with diabetes. African Americans are 1.7 times more likely to have diabetes as non-Hispanic Whites, according to the American Diabetes Association.
Diabetes is associated with an increased risk for a number of serious, sometimes life-threatening complications. Good diabetes management can help reduce your risk; however, many people are not even aware that they have diabetes until they develop harmful effects such as damage to the eyes, heart, blood vessels, nervous system, teeth and gums, feet and skin, or kidneys.
Studies show that keeping blood glucose, blood pressure and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels close to normal can help prevent or delay these problems.
Many families eat large meals at odd times on holidays. For example, Thanksgiving dinner may be served in the middle of the afternoon. Plan in advance for how you will handle making changes if your meal does not line up with your regular meal schedule.
If you take insulin injections or a pill that lowers blood glucose, you may need to have a snack at your normal meal time to prevent a low blood glucose reaction. Check with your health care team about this.
Many of the traditionally prepared Thanksgiving dishes are high in carbohydrates: mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, stuffing, dinner rolls, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, and other desserts.
The American Diabetes Association suggests not sampling everything on the table and to have a reasonable portion of your favorites and pass on the rest. For example, if stuffing is your favorite, pass on rolls. Choose either sweet potatoes or mashed potatoes. If you do try everything, make your portions smaller.
McQuirter did not have any diabetic specific recipes but said to stick with natural sweeteners such as fruit.
Recipes For a Healthy Thanksgiving
For more information and for recipes listed in McQuirter’s free downloadable, African-American Vegan Starter Guide, such as oven roasted Brussels sprouts, vegan mac and cheese, kale salad and hearts of palm crab cakes, visit her website at www.byanygreensnecessary.com.
The website and guide has a wealth of information including an interview with Vegan Physician Dr. Milton Mills about food and health, recipes from various vegan chefs, and other great tips and information on raising vegan children and much more.
Recipes excerpted from Ageless Vegan: The Secret to Living a Long and Healthy Plant-Based Life by Tracye McQuirter, MPH with Mary McQuirter. Copyright © 2018. Available from Da Capo Lifelong Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
Perfect Pecan Pie
*The pecan pie recipe is not for diabetics but is a healthier option of a Black family Thanksgiving staple.
Makes 7-9 servings
“My mom created this updated version of the pecan pie her mother used to make when she was growing up in South Carolina. It has everything you’d expect: a thick and gooey filling that’s not too sweet, a caramelized topping with whole pecans pressed in, and a light and flaky crust. It’s still delicious, just healthier. Pecans are the most antioxidant rich tree nut—which includes antioxidant vitamins E and A that can help ward off free radicals that lead to premature aging of the skin.” –Tracye McQuirter
1¾ cup whole pecans
1 cup chopped pecans
¾ cup maple syrup
¼ cup brown rice syrup
½ teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 tablespoons ground flaxseed meal
¼ cup unsweetened almond milk
2 tablespoons extra-virgin coconut oil
⅛ teaspoon sea salt
2 tablespoons whole wheat flour
1 (9-inch) whole-grain pie crust
Preheat oven to 350°F.
In a food processor, add 1 cup of the whole pecans and process until a coarse meal is formed. Place the meal in a medium bowl and add the chopped pecans. Stir until just combined. In a large bowl, combine the maple syrup, brown rice syrup, cinnamon, vanilla, flaxseed meal, milk, oil, and salt. Add the pecan mixture to the wet mixture and stir until mixed well. Stir in 1 tablespoon of the whole wheat flour at a time. You want the batter to be thick, but still loose enough to pour. Pour the batter into the piecrust. Arrange the remaining whole pecans on top. Bake for 45 minutes. Let the pie cool completely for the filling to firmly set. Serve immediately.
TIP: If you prefer a slightly less sweet pie, omit the brown rice syrup.
Stuffed Orange and Red Bell Peppers
Makes 4 servings
This dish was inspired by the delicious stuffed peppers we ate when I was growing up. This updated recipe uses a medley of wild rice, zucchini, walnuts, and currants for the filling and a cashew butter—based dressing on top. It’s a great example of Health Is in the Hue because it contains antioxidant-rich foods in a variety of health-promoting colors.
¾ cup uncooked wild rice
1 small zucchini, grated (about 2 cups)
1 cup raw walnuts, roughly chopped
¼ red onion, finely chopped (about ½ cup)
½ cup currants
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
¾ teaspoon sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 large red bell peppers, cut in half and seeds removed
2 large orange bell peppers, cut in half and seeds removed
¼ cup cashew butter
¼ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (about 2 lemons)
2 tablespoons tahini
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1 tablespoon nutritional yeast
1 tablespoon roughly chopped curly parsley
1 tablespoon roughly chopped fresh mint
½ teaspoon sea salt
⅛ teaspoon cayenne pepper
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 small cucumber, finely chopped (about 1 cup)
Preheat oven to 375°F.
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.
Place the uncooked wild rice in a fine strainer and rinse. In a large pot, boil 4 cups water and the rice. Reduce the heat, cover, and simmer for 45 minutes and check for doneness. Some varieties of wild rice take longer to cook than others. The rice should be tender but still chewy, with some of the grains open. If not done, cover and continue simmering for another 10 to 15 minutes, if necessary. Once rice is done, drain off any remaining water.
In a large bowl, combine the cooked wild rice, zucchini, walnuts, onions, currants, oil, salt, and pepper.
Stuff the bell peppers with the wild rice mixture and place on the lined baking sheet. Bake for 45 minutes.
SAUCE: In a blender, combine the cashew butter, lemon juice, ¼ cup water, tahini, garlic, nutritional yeast, parsley, mint, salt, cayenne, and pepper. Blend until smooth. Stir in the cucumbers. Serve stuffed bell peppers