Okra and Ogbono

African Diet & Chronic Diseases

Written by Temitope Alao-Sanni, RD

African diet and chronic diseases. We have all heard that the African diet is terrible for our health because it causes belly fat and promotes obesity, one of the prominent risk factors associated with chronic diseases. Is it true? This is a controversial subject, with plenty of experts on both sides of the argument.

Keep reading to find out where I stand as a Nigerian Registered Dietitian building a career in public health and NCD prevention.

Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) and The African Cuisine

Non-communicable diseases (NCDs) are chronic diseases often associated with lifestyle. They cannot be passed from one person to another, for example, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and cancer. The roots of African cuisine go back thousands of years to the Bronze Age in Northeast Africa when early civilizations began cultivating grains such as barley and wheat (Wikipedia).

African Cuisine Today

African cuisine has barely changed over the years. It is a rich blend of diverse food groups, including whole grains, legumes, tubers, starchy vegetables, leafy greens, fruits, peppers, herbs, and spices. These are all healthy foods full of fiber, prebiotics, probiotics, and complex carbohydrates that leave you fuller for longer. Potentially, a traditional African diet can lower the risk of chronic diseases.

A plate of jollof rice (A popular West African dish)

Making The Link

How we prepare our food may transform its nutritional values and how it interacts with our body. For example, fried rice’s calorie and fat content are almost double in comparison with the same size as boiled rice and stew. Meanwhile, both dishes are prepared with rice and vegetables. Again, frying fatty fish has been shown to degrade its healthy fat (omega 3) content by up to 70–85%, while cooking in dry heat causes minimal losses.

What we eat matters, but how we cook it matters more.

Similarly, using saturated fats like blocks of butter as a base for making dishes like jollof rice, fried rice, and stir-fried vegetables can significantly increase the amount of unwanted fat in the served dish.

Until our ancestors say “enough”

Adding unquantified amounts of salt and palm/groundnut oil to create deeply flavoured sauces and soups is quite common in many African cuisines. Meanwhile, there is an inside joke when preparing African food; “we don’t need to measure the salt; pour until the ancestors whisper it’s enough.” That statement is what it should be; a joke!

Breaking The Link

African cultures have historically lived long lives without developing significant chronic diseases. Yet, there continues to be a substantial rise in chronic diseases in our region. Maybe there is something else going on here! Let’s stop highlighting our food as the problem until we find out and consider cooking methods.

What To Do!

Healthy food comes from a healthy pot and healthy ingredients. You can find both in every African country! Our foods are healthy too, enjoy them and seek counsel from a registered dietitian to make informed choices.

Contact one today!