Grandson of DC soul food legend trying to break cycle of unhealthy habits

This is part of WTOP’s continuing coverage of people making a difference from our community authored by Stephanie Gaines-Bryant. Read more of that coverage.

The grandson of the owner of D.C.’s legendary home of sweet potato pie, Henry’s Soul Café, says he grew up eating amazing food, but later recognized that his family had a history of unhealthy eating and illness — now he wants to break the cycle.

Darren Smith is a certified fitness instructor and nutrition coach. While in his twenties, he became the founder and CEO of The Respect Yourself Project — which seeks to create awareness about heart disease and HIV.

“I grew up smelling sweet potato pie every single day,” Smith said.

Darren Smith and participants in an event for The Respect Yourself Project. (Courtesy The Respect Yourself Project)

But, he said, he also grew up recognizing that his family had a history of diabetes, heart disease and high cholesterol.

“I watched my grandmother have triple bypass surgery because of clogged arteries,” Smith said.

At a very young age, Smith said, he knew he wanted to break the cycle. He said he didn’t want to grow up and have to be on medicine or have a pacemaker.

Smith said he still loves those southern foods he grew up on, but now he just cooks them differently. Instead of frying chicken in oil, he uses an air fryer. Instead of using ham hocks in collard greens, he uses turkey.

“It’s all about being creative in the kitchen,” he said.

He also said he’s learned the art of self-care when it comes to working out.

“Whether it’s 10 minutes, 15 minutes, 30 minutes, I’m going to carve out that niche in the morning or in the afternoon for myself to do something,” Smith said.

Smith said that “something,” may be going for a run, doing some weights or following a workout video at home.

Smith helping lead a fitness event for The Respect Yourself Project, which aims to fight heart disease and other illnesses. (Courtesy The Respect Yourself Project)

The Respect Yourself Project facilitates events that bring the community together — combining fitness, music and education to get the word out about the dangers of heart disease, strokes and the stigma around HIV.

Smith said if you started off strong with a wellness plan for 2023 and find yourself veering off course, “Give yourself grace.”

He said we all lead busy lives and you may find yourself not living up to your goals.

“It’s not a race, it’s a marathon,” he said. “We’re going to take it slow and stead until you reach your goal.”

The Respect Yourself Project is holding its heart disease fundraising event — the 7th Annual Straight 2 the Heart Fundraiser — at Fitness4Less in Bowie, Maryland, on Sunday, Feb. 19. The two-hour aerobic fitness event will include wellness and blood pressure checks.

To find out more, visit its website.

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