While giving a nutrition lecture in their Greater Orlando, Florida, community, the three founders of Hebni Nutrition Consultants (HNC) found themselves stumped by a question from the audience.
"Where do chitterlings fall on the food pyramid?" a man asked, referring to boiled and highly seasoned pig intestines, a popular dish in African American communities.
"We looked at each other and said, 'Good question!'" said Fabiola Gaines, president of HNC, a nonprofit agency that educates high-risk, culturally diverse populations about nutrition strategies designed to prevent diet-related diseases. "We realized the USDA food pyramid does not address many of the popular foods that African Americans eat."
The nutritionists decided to create the Soul Food Pyramid, a modification of the standard food pyramid that is tailored to the African American diet. The guide shows where traditional ethnic foods, or "soul" foods, fall within the food groups.
"Soul food gets a bad rap, but it has many good nutrition qualities," said Roniece Weaver, HNC's executive director. "It's filled with the whole grains, fiber and vitamins that come from yams, greens and vegetables. It's the way we buy it, the way we cook it, the way we prepare it and the amount we eat that's the problem."
The Soul Food Pyramid uses food photography to easily convey what is included in each food group. It also includes tips on how to judge portion size using your hands (for example, one cup is the size of your fist); and it dissects the parts of a nutrition label to explain how the information applies to your daily diet.
"People have to feel as if they have ownership over the pyramid to use it; so our pyramid has pictures of collard greens, kale, corn and chitterlings," said Weaver. "People can look at it and say, 'Yes, I do eat that, but I didn't know I couldn't eat that every day.'"
Ellareetha Carson, HNC's community nutrition educator and secretary, said one of the main goals of the Soul Food Pyramid is to make people aware of what they're eating.
"People would tell me they ate fresh pork neck bones and rice for dinner, which is essentially a lot of grease on a pile of rice," she said. "Foods such as chitterlings, pig feet and pig tails are 95 percent fat. We teach people that these foods are not meat and explain to them why they are placed near the tip of the Soul Food Pyramid."
According to Gaines, it's not about abandoning traditional foods -- it's about rethinking favorite recipes. "I am not going to tell my African American clients to stop eating collard greens and start eating asparagus," she said. "I'm going to tell them how to make collard greens more healthful."
HNC's Soul Food Pyramid currently is in its third edition. It has been embraced by the American Dietetic Association as well as the American Diabetes Association, for which Gaines and Weaver have coauthored four healthful soul food cookbooks.
"Soul food is part of our tradition, our makeup and our lifestyle; and it's not going to go away," Weaver said. "It just needed a face-lift."