Updated: Sep 21
A scholarly article written for Andrews University, Public Health - Health Behaviors
Changing one’s diet is an important decision that can be affected by several factors - including obesity, joint pain, disease prevention and overall health. We know that one’s initial diet is not their choice, being influenced by parental preferences, culture and accessibility. Today, in the wake of the “green revolution” more and more individuals, especially African Americans, are becoming vegetarian or vegan, citing health issues and natural-resource conservation as the main motivations. I’d like to postulate that simply - an improved bill of health is not the main motivation for the change. If we were to apply the Theory of Planned Behavior - later to become the Theory of Reasoned Action (TRA) to the behavior, then several social issues present themselves as motivation behind the growing trend.
According to a 2016 Pew Research Survey, African-Americans are the fastest growing group of vegans. While 3% of the general American population identifies as vegan, the number is more than twice that much amongst Blacks. Historically, Blacks in America have had worse health outcomes than their White and other minority counterparts. This statement is true for Blacks who were born here, descendants of slaves, or expats from other countries. For the sake of this paper, when referring to Blacks, I will be referencing those with American ancestry. Although the morbidity and mortality rate for Blacks is high in regards to a number of chronic and lifestyle illnesses, 20 years ago, you'd be hard-pressed to find individuals who would change their diet to improve their health outcomes. Today the situation has changed and continues to change at a rapid pace.
There are several factors at play which influence similarities within the larger group of African-Americans; I will focus on two issues that I believe have a direct impact on the cognitive decision-making processes of Blacks in the rapid transition to a vegan or plant-based diet: the Church and Blackness itself. Historically, the Black Church has been able to shape the behavior of the community by providing political direction, comfort, physical resources and moral support. “After emancipation, black churches became virtually the only place for African Americans to find refuge… The representational structure of African American churches confirmed Black preachers as both religious and community leaders” (The Black Church). The Church was a prestigious entity of the community and members found freedoms there they were not otherwise afforded. Members were able to vote, gather socially in a place removed of racial prejudice, and implement hierarchical roles that were non-existent in other non-religious (political, educational, occupational, etc) settings. Church members tended to have the best foods on Sundays when they gathered for worship - saving and preparing the entire week for the one day of freedom. The idea of having the “Sunday best” soon morphed into indulgence, with Southern Baptists leading the way in rich foods. The results of the Christian ideology that we are “the head and not the tail” does affect the psyche of many Black Christians, however, it is never more clearly revealed in the way that they eat. Ignoring the Biblical dietary laws has had a grave impact on the health of many blacks who (I postulate) use cognitive dissonance to justify their gluttony. A study conducted by Duke University revealed that in the early 2000s, “Black men who go to church five or more times a week are three times more likely to be obese than those who seldom or rarely attend” (Hubbard, 2019).
In recent years, the same fervor that energized Black church-goers during the Civil-rights era, is moving through the pews in a direction of health. With individuals such as Nathaniel Jordan - who refers to himself as the Minister of Wellness, Dr. Columbus Batiste, and other health experts, gracing pulpits throughout the US, the trend of caring for one’s body as Christian duty is picking up momentum. Health is being viewed through the lenses of caring for one’s temple - a Biblical concept. Now, instead of just adopting an attitude of concern for health, attitudes are changing toward the behavior of unhealthy eating, specifically in relation to eating unclean meat and gluttony. In keeping with the original TRA formulation, one can clearly see a shift amongst Black church-goers from simply relying on a doctor’s prescription, to taking responsibility for one’s own health. This dependence on health professional’s word as “gospel” is not unique to Christians only.
Historically, Black people have relied on the majority class for many of their needs - including health needs. This stems from the legacy of slavery, when Black people were completely dependent upon Whites for life or death - shelter, food, health- care and more. This evolved into thinking that Whites were better - in terms of their business practices, education, and institutions. Recently, there has been a shift in attitudes pertaining to “Blackness” stemming from African-American scholars unearthing beliefs and ideals of preceding community leaders (Marcus Garvey, Malcom X, Chancellor Williams and the like). A wave of thought is resurging that presses Blacks to return to their greatness. A greatness that preceded the trans-Atlantic slave trade and colonization of African nations. This return or “connection to roots” as it were, also encourages a return to an original diet; a diet that connects humans - particularly Blacks - with the earth. African-American proponents of a plant-based diet not only tout it as a diet that connects humans with the elements they come from - minerals found in the ground but they hit the nail on the head when addressing mental clarity.
Whether proponents of a plant-based diet are found within or without the Church, nearly all address the fact that cleaning up one’s diet has a direct correlation with the mind. Christians are motivated to put their bodies and minds in tip-top-shape in order to go on God’s biddings, without interference from a debilitating health condition. While African- Americans as a whole are encouraged to move in a direction that allows them to have clear minds in order to make wiser choices and “see” the world with sharper vision. Both approaches are now making it more acceptable or subjectively normal to be plant-based in Black skin.
In the past, being vegetarian would mean giving up the “rich foods” that many Blacks had worked hard to afford - or at least indulge in at the end of a hard work week or at some social celebration. The unhealthy foods that appeared at potluck or graced the family get together were a subtle nod to the economic achievements of Blacks, by the ability to not only afford the food - but to congregate freely in enjoyment. Giving up these foods, subconsciously meant giving up those accomplishments. Now, in an era of “wokeness” people are beginning to correlate health with strength; the ability to control one’s appetite is a feat all on its own. Having self-control, whether it be in dealing with finances, sexual prowess, or appetite, is part of the unspoken tenants of the new Blackness - a Blackness that involves being self aware.
In Essentials of Health Behavior Social and Behavioral Theory in Public Health, Edberg explains that subjective norms, “refers to perceptions about whether the [health] behavior is likely to be approved or disapproved by the social groups of influence for the person who is deciding whether to do the behavior.” As research shows that the list of influential Blacks becoming vegan is growing daily, we will continue to see the trend climb as the behavior becomes more socially acceptable - and encouraged (Reiley, 2020).
Edberg, Mark. (2015). On health and behavior - An Introduction. Essentials of Health Behavior Social and Behavioral Theory in Public Health. (2nd ed). Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning, LLC.
Hubbard, Lucas. (2019). For Some, Church is good for the soul, but not the waistline. Duke Today, Campus Medicine. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10943-019-00888-6. Retrieved from: https://today.duke.edu/2019/08/study-some-church- good-soul-not-waistline
Pew Research Center. (2016). American trends panel wave 17. Retrieved from: https://www.pewresearch.org/science/2016/12/01/public-views-about-americans-eating-habits/
Reiley, Laura. (2020). The fastest-growing vegan demographic is African Americans. Wu-Tang Clan and other hip-hop acts paved the way. The Washington Post. Retrieved from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/01/24/fastest- growing-vegan-demographic-is-african-americans-wu-tang-clan-other-hip-hop-acts-paved-way/
“The Black Church,” A brief history. African American Registry. Retrieved on January 28, 2020 from: https://aaregistry.org/story/the-black-church-a-brief-history/