For instance, medical researchers have had difficulties understanding the high rates of salt-sensitive high blood-pressure in African-Americans. This is because the assumption was that this population came from the coastal areas of West Africa. However, most African slaves shipped to the Americas came from the decentralized societies, which were located sometimes a thousand miles or more inland of the coast. These areas were geologically deficient in salt. Over the course of millennia, the bodies of these tropical farmers had adjusted to low-sodium levels by increasing the efficiency of their kidney functioning on lower salt levels. Upon arriving in the Americas, awash with salt and a sodium-rich diet, this population group has found such medical conditions as kidney disease and high-blood pressure skyrocket.
In short, my West African forebearers had evolved super efficient kidneys, which could function on exceedingly low levels of salt in the sweltering tropical climate. But alas, many of their African-American descendants have found this biological asset in kidney function, an almost lethal “defect” in America’s salt-saturated environment.
An article in the medical journal Hypertension has identified a gene variant found among African-Americans, known as angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE). It is believed to cause the greater salt-sensitivity of blacks to people of European and Asian ancestry, thus increasing the risk of developing high blood pressure and kidney disease. According to Colorado State researchers:
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommended reducing sodium intake to no more than 2,300 milligrams per day. However, those with hypertension, over the age of 51, or who are African American, should consume no more than 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day. This recommendation includes over half of all Americans.
I appreciate the importance of medical research such as this, defining the special dietary needs some Americans of African descent, myself included, may have as it relates to salt. But, I also recognize the inherent dangers in identifying specific medical issues as being “racial.” The reason is that skin color can be an inefficient and perhaps even misleading indicator of salt-sensitivity because even those of us who refer to ourselves as blacks have usually inherited a mixed genetic heritage. In addition, coastal Africans, of the same skin color would not tend to have this environmental adaptation to salt-deficient regions, while other “races” from salt-deficient geological environments in other parts of the world probably would.
American society has suffered a long, vulgar history of employing racial labels to stereotype and demean minorities. But despite this sobering, cautionary note, I believe that we can still value and honor our individual ancestral heritages in ways that guide us towards living the most vital, healthful lives we were put on this earth to enjoy.
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