IS AFRICAN FOOD HEALTHY?

Is African food healthy? That’s the question a dietician asked me when I told her I eat African food 90% of the time. In 2010, I was diagnosed with gestational diabetes – a condition which affects overweight pregnant women.  When I consulted with a dietician to follow a diet that would help keep my blood sugar within the healthy range, I realized that nutritional information and sound knowledge on the nutritive value of African foods is (still) lacking. The reason why I decided to pursue a masters degree in public health nutrition.

Since 2013, I have gained profound knowledge on the myriad of health benefits of African food as a research associate at the Leipniz Institute for (obesity) prevention and epidemiology and currently as a Phd. candidate researching the nutrition-related factors that cause obesity especially among African migrants.

In the cause of my research, I have learned that Africa has some of the healthiest food on the planet. Our continent is rich with foods of all kinds and colors, providing all of the nutrients our bodies needs for growth, repair and proper functioning. Recent scientific studies show that African vegetables are the new superfoods, some providing 2o times more nutrients than conventional vegetables. With regards to the main food groups, Africa has got it all, from fruits and vegetables, legumes, roots and tubers to wholegrains, fish and fish oils, nuts and oils you name it, we’ve got it.

According to a study that analyzed the consumption of healthy foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish and foods containing fiber and omege-3s in 187 countries published by The Lancet Global Health in 2015, it was found that Sub-Saharan Africa, particularly West Africa, have the healthiest diets in the world as countries like chad, Mali, Senegal and Sierra Leone ranked better than wealthier regions in North America and Europe, probably because their diets are made up of lean meats, vegetables, legumes and staple starches and less processed foods compared to other countries analyzed in that study.

Below is a cross-section of some of our foods and their health benefits;

Food  Examples  Health Benefits
Dark leaf greens Bitterleaf, kale, spinach, African spinach (all sorts), waterleaf, bitterleaf, lettuces, eggplant leaves, African basil, fluted pumpkin leaf, potato leaves, cocoyam leaves, cassava leaves, Ugu, sweet potato leaves, amaranth greens, etc.
  • Green vegetables are a major source of iron and calcium. Green leafy vegetables are rich in beta-carotene, which can also be converted into vitamin A, and also improve immune function.
  • Rich source of fiber, vitamins, minerals, and plant-based substances that may help protect you from heart disease, diabetes, and perhaps even cancer.
Vegetables Cabbage, carrots, eggplant, green beans, okra, onions, bell peppers, pumpkin, squashes, beetroot plus all dark leafy greens, jute mallow etc.
  • Vegetables are important sources of many nutrients, including potassium, dietary fiber, folate (folic acid), vitamin A, and vitamin C.
  • Diets rich in potassium may help to maintain healthy blood pressure.
Fruits Avocados, bananas, oranges, pawpaw, watermelon, mangoes, limes, lemon, plums, tomatoes, guava, passionfruit, grapefruits  

  • Most fruits are naturally low in fat, sodium, and calories.
  • Fruits are sources of many essential nutrients that are underconsumed, including potassium, dietary fiber, vitamin C, and folate (folic acid).
Starces & Whole grains Couscous, fonio, maize/corn, millet, rice, sorghum, oatmeal, etc.
  • Whole grains are packed with nutrients, including protein, fiber, B vitamins, antioxidants, and trace minerals (iron, zinc, copper, and magnesium).
  • A diet rich in whole grains has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and some forms of cancer.
Roots & Tubers Sweet potatoes, cassava, plantains, yucca, yams, taro, potatoes  

  • The main nutritional value of roots and tubers lies in their potential ability to provide one of the cheapest sources of dietary energy, in the form of carbohydrates.
  • Potatoes and yams contain high amounts of proteins Cassava, sweet potatoes, potatoes, and yam contain some vitamin C and yellow varieties of sweet potatoes, yam, and cassava contain β-carotene.
  • Taro is a good source of potassium. Roots and tubers are deficient in most other vitamins and minerals but contain significant amounts of dietary fibre.
Legumes (beans, peas kidney beans, black-eyed peas, cowpeas, lima beans, lentils, chickpeas, etc.
  •  Aside from protein, complex carbs and fiber, beans contain a powerhouse of nutrients including antioxidants, and vitamins and minerals, such as copper, folate, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorous, potassium and zinc.
Nuts & seeds Groundnuts, cashew nuts, tiger nuts, pumkpin seeds, melon seeds, mango seeds
  • They pack a powerful punch of vitamins, minerals and heart-healthy fats, all of which work together to affect your heart, your brain and your waistline.
Herbs & spices  bay eaf, ginger, garlic, corianda, cinnamon, oregano, nutmeg, cilantro, peppers  

  • Apart from the flavor boost they add to our dishes, many herbs and spices pack a plethora of health perks including possible protection against some of the deadliest chronic conditions, like cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.  
 Fish & seafood  Catfish, cod, tilapia, mackerel, dried fish, cray fish, prawns, sardines

To answer the question of this post, is African food healthy? The answer is definitely yes! African food is rich in variety, rich in nutrients and provides a wealth of disease-preventing, health-promoting benefits if cooked in a healthy way and eaten in the right portion. In subsequent post, I will be sharing lots and lots of recipes as well as food facts so that you know your food and how beneficial they are for your health and well-being.

But first, feed your eyes with a few of many African well-balanced meals that pack a serious nutritional punch. Here’s to your health from heritage! 🙂

Fried Rice 

fried-rice

Efo Riro

efo-riro

Poulet DG

poulet-dg

Sautéed Green (African Spinach)

green1

Achu

achu

Ndolé and Plantain

www-shapeupafrican-com

Beef Suya

suya

Koki (Moi-moi)

koki

Char-roasted chicken, baked sweet potatoes and pepper sauce

chicken

I would love to interact with you. Describe your favorite (African) heritage food and what makes it so special?I am hungry, so please feed me with pearls of your heritage!!!

Z.T.
IRepCamer

Author: Zita Tiena

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3 Comments

  1. The food pics are making me Salivate big time!!! Yes African foods can be healthy. We cook with a lot fo veggies and all we need to d ois cut the carbs and replcae them with better options. E.g instead of Garri and say okra soup, one can use oatmeal (as a garri replacement) and okra soup. Very ncie write up.

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    • Eating certain things in moderation is key..We have a lot of starchy foods but replacements like you mentioned will make our eating habits healthier

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  2. I will have to read the text only on a second look, I just can get enough of the food in the pictures. I can imagine this is what I have been missing for the past years. I can not wait to get home.

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