NEWS

This Dietitian Is Teaching People to Cook Nutritious African Dishes

msora kasago

Verywell Health / Jessica Olah

Key Takeaways

  • African cuisines offer a diverse range of grains and leafy grains, but these are often left out of healthy eating suggestions and nutrition studies in the West.
  • As a result, people of African descent are not always given culturally inclusive nutrition advice when seeking tools for disease prevention or recovery.
  • Cordialis Msora-Kasago, a California-based registered dietitian who grew up in Zimbabwe, is working to educate more people about the nutritional benefits of African heritage foods.

When Cordialis Msora-Kasago, MA, RDN, founded The African Pot Nutrition (TAPN) in 2010, she was motivated by a deep love for her Zimbabwean heritage and a sharp anger at its lack of representation in Western nutrition manuals.

“Why don’t I see myself?” Msora-Kasago recalled asking herself on New Year’s Eve of 2009, as news anchors rattled off diet trends for the new year.

Based in Menifee, California, Msora-Kasago grew up in Zimbabwe and watched her grandfather prepare meals by stirring tiny pieces of meat into large pots of leafy greens. Small grains and vegetables are staples across many cuisines in sub-Saharan Africa, but their diets are often excluded from Western conversations about healthy eating, she said.

“There is a need for more people to hear about their foods and to see their food celebrated as part of an overall healthy eating,” Msora-Kasago said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate, which includes recipe suggestions based on cuisine, does not currently list any African recipes.

Cordialis Msora-Kasago, a California-based registered dietitian who grew up in Zimbabwe, is working to educate more people about the nutritional benefits of African heritage foods.
Cordialis Msora-Kasago, a California-based registered dietitian who grew up in Zimbabwe, is working to educate more people about the nutritional benefits of African heritage foods.

Using Food to Find Healing

At TAPN, which offers individualized and group nutrition counseling, Msora-Kasago uses African food to celebrate her culture and help people of African descent avoid or manage chronic conditions like hypertension.

Hypertension, or high blood pressure, affects almost 1.3 billion people globally, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Of those, people in sub-Saharan Africa are among the least likely to be receiving treatment.

In the United States, hypertension rates are the highest among Black adults at 54%. The condition also affects 46% of White adults, 39% of Asian adults, and 36% of Hispanic adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Msora-Kasago writes on her blog about the risks of obesity, diabetes, and hypertension among African people, and how reliance on Western products may increase these risks. She also has a hard time finding nutritional information on African foods due to a lack of research and studies.

Her work is also influenced by her mother, who died from kidney failure in 2005. The physicians who treated her mother were not equipped to provide her with culturally relevant food suggestions and their guidance was unhelpful, Msora-Kasago said.

So she stepped in. Using her expertise as a dietitian, Msora-Kasago created a Zimbabwean meal plan for her mother to enjoy.

To do that, she looked at individual foods and their properties. Rather than telling her mother to avoid pizza as a doctor had suggested, Msora-Kasago evaluated why pizza was off limits. Pizza is high in sodium and potassium, which can be harmful to someone with chronic kidney disease.

She taught her mother to replace higher potassium vegetables like pumpkin leaves with lower potassium vegetables like cabbage, or to soak and drain pumpkin leaves to reduce their potassium content.

“What that gave her was the ability to heal through food and still live a meaningful quality of life,” Msora-Kasago said. “That was how my father was able to provide care in the last days, by making sure that she was fed and she was fed nutritious foods that she could relate to.”

It also meant teaching her mother to be mindful of portion sizes, reducing the amount of sadza on her plate. Sadza is a traditional Zimbabwean food that is made from maize meal, or cornmeal, and water. Maize meal is a grain comparable to rice or mashed potatoes and it can be served at any meal. It is also eaten in other African countries. In Kenya, for example, sadza is called ugali.

Msora-Kasago described sadza as the quintessential Zimbabwean dish that is a key component in her mother’s meal plan. “My mother was the type of person who would tell you ‘if you don’t feed me sadza at a meal, I have not eaten,’” Msora-Kasago added.

How to Make Sadza

To make sadza, Msora-Kasago adds the maize meal, or cornmeal, into a pot of water to make a paste while boiling a separate pot of water on the side. As the pot boils, she will begin to combine the hot water into the maize meal pot using a traditional mixing spoon called a mugoti. If more intense mixing is needed to eliminate lumps, she would use a long whisk with a wooden handle called a msika. Once combined, the sadza needs to simmer for about 15 to 20 minutes. She will then add more maize meal bit by bit until the dish thickens.

Using Nutrition to Complement Culture

Many of Msora-Kasago’s clients came in thinking that they have to follow the Mediterranean diet to improve their health, but they often had a hard time eating some of the foods recommended.

For instance, salmon is praised as a great source of Omega-3 fatty acids, but it’s not affordable for a lot of people. Sardines and small anchovies make for a more sensible diet alternative for African or African Americans, she said.

“When I think of the Mediterranean diet, I am thinking of ‘what foods are in this eating patterns that make it so healthy?’ It’s about the abundance of fruits and vegetables and beans and whole grain, so I get to educate people on how they can include some of these similar foods in their diet,” Msora-Kasago said.

This means incorporating nutritious grains like sorghum and millet, root vegetables like yam and cassava, and leafy greens such as amaranth leaves, pumpkin leaves, and sweet potato leaves.

“Rather than putting halos on individual foods, looking at overall cultural eating patterns and celebrating the food from each culture is extremely important,” she added.

Equitable and inclusive eating guidelines must consider more than how specific ingredients affect the body, Msora-Kasago said. Eating choices, especially for immigrants, can shape people’s sense of community, she added.

“As I think of myself as an African immigrant in the United States, to me, food is my identity,” she said. “It is how I teach my children our culture—it’s that one piece that brings me back.”

What This Means For You

Many African cuisines include an abundance of local grains and leafy grains, but they're not always mentioned in Western conversations about healthy eating.

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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A closer look at African American men and high blood pressure control.