Documentary tackles soul food and health

Consider it good timing that Byron Hurt’s documentary “Soul Food Junkies” airs in Atlanta after the holidays, when many people pledge to get healthier in the new year.

In his new project, Hurt hurls stones at a few of the sacred cows of soul food — fried chicken, rich macaroni and cheese, and collard greens with a dollop of grease or a slice (or two) of fatback for seasoning.

While tasty, they’re not exactly at the top of the list of heart-healthy foods. At least, not the way they’ve traditionally been prepared in many African-American kitchens.

“I’m not throwing soul food under the bus,” Hurt said. “That’s not what this film is about. I love my culture and I understand that culturally our history is rich. This film talks about the unhealthier aspects of soul food.”

He wanted to start a discussion about health and diet with the film, which will be shown later this month on GPB.

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Hurt, a former college quarterback who spent many summers and holidays in Milledgeville, where both of his parents were born, got the idea for the film shortly after his father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

His dad, Jackie Hurt, battled weight issues for many years, fueled by eating way too much fast food, processed foods and meals containing lots of saturated fats. While researching pancreatic cancer, Byron Hurt discovered that African-Americans are more likely to be diagnosed with this type of cancer than whites, and very overweight people and those who don’t get much exercise are at greater risk.

“I started to wonder if his illness had anything to do with his diet,” said Hurt, who lives in New Jersey and now eats a mostly vegetable-based diet. “He talked about changing his eating habits and diet, but it was difficult for him to do.”

In the documentary, which took three years and roughly $500,000 to make, Hurt travels to several cities, including Atlanta, and examines African-Americans and the role eating habits play on their health. In Jackson, Miss., he attended a tailgate party where revelers gathered around a huge pot filled with corn, pigs’ ears and feet, and turkey neck, fare that would make any doctor cringe.

But it also tackles other issues such as fast foods, processed foods and food deserts, neighborhoods where residents have few, if any, options for healthy fare such as fresh fruits and vegetables.

He hopes the film and his father’s story will inspire others to eat healthier.

Studies have shown that obesity is a major risk factor for high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease and some cancers.

And Georgians know how to pack on the pounds.

Nearly 35 percent of Georgia adults are overweight, and 28 percent are considered obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“It’s not just what we eat, but how much we eat, how we prepare it and the lack of exercise,” said Dr. Harry Strothers, the chairman of family medicine at the Morehouse School of Medicine. “That combination is what’s deadly.” Too often, Strothers said, he has issued stern warnings to his patients about the health consequences of poor diets. Some promise to do better, but he knows they’ll go right back to their fat-laden ways.

Experts advise people to use low-fat milk instead of whole milk, bake chicken instead of frying it, follow a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, and keep an eye on portion size.

The Rev. Shanan Jones, the assistant pastor of community affairs and public relations at Ebenezer Baptist Church, would like to see more churches saving the body as well as the soul.

“Many of the funerals that we’ve conducted were unnecessary,” said Jones, who has lost 125 pounds through diet changes and exercise. “We’re eating ourselves into the grave, and that’s something that the faith community and the African-American community at least have to wrestle with.”

Hurt couldn’t agree more.

“I wanted to make this film to honor my father (who died in 2007 from the pancreatic cancer), and I wanted his life and his memory to potentially have an impact on millions of people,” Hurt said. “I hope people are inspired by his story and consider having conversations with family members who need that extra push to change their diet to to exercise on a regular basis.”

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