Nigeria’s over 250 ethnic groups eat foods that have emerged from their various cultures, but some are not meeting the demands of healthy eating.
As a result protein deficiency is central to the various culturally-inherited foods among the ethnic groups.
These were the concerns of Dr. Omadeli Boyo, a public health expert and Medical Director, Pinecrest Specialist Hospital during his presentation as a Keynote Speaker at the Protein Deficiency Awareness Webinar which held recently.
In his research work on ‘Nigeria’s Food Culture and the challenge of Protein Deficiency’, Boyo observed that carbohydrates such as rice and garri highly dominated Nigeria’s staple foods; while animal proteins were classified as rare luxury items in the meals of most homes.
Culture change to break the ice of various cultural practices that lead to malnutrition is Boyo’s solution to protein deficiency in Nigeria.
He recommended sensitization of Nigerian communities taking into cognizance their knowledge, attitudes and practices, confronting the communities with the realities, the dangers and causes of malnutrition and awareness campaigns projecting the benefits of meals rich in proteins.
He highlighted stakeholders’ involvement as strategic such as women, farmers, cooperatives, traditional institutions, religious organizations, town unions, labour unions, media/film industry, institutions of learning etc.
He stated that the government also has a role to play in policy development and mass mobilization.
Boyo’s mission is breaking those cultural barriers to balanced diets in Nigerian communities.
These include cultural practices of over cooking vegetables, thereby losing the essential micronutrients and the inclusion of meat only for special occasions.
These practices result in imbalances in the intake of energy and/or nutrients – which is the definition of malnutrition by the World Health Organization (WHO).
Boyo explained that the term malnutrition addresses three broad groups of conditions: Under-nutrition, which includes wasting (low weight-for-height), stunting (low height-forage); Underweight (low weight-for-age); and micronutrient-related malnutrition, which includes micronutrient deficiencies (a lack of important vitamins and minerals) – or micronutrient excess which can cause overweight, obesity and diet-related non-communicable diseases such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes an and some cancers.
Boyo also identified the various types of malnutrition prevalent in Nigeria as iron deficiency anemia (IDA), protein-energy malnutrition (PEM), vitamin A deficiency (VAD) and iodine deficiency disorder (IDD).
He however added that the federal government’s proposed long-term measure for the resolution of these various types of malnutrition is dietary diversification.
The health expert conceded that food is part of the local culture and getting people to change their culture can be very difficult, but it can only happen over time.
He identified the various tools that could help bring about this change as studies of the knowledge, attitude and practices of the various ethnic groups; collating and analyzing reports of impacts of culture on health and educating the people on the present danger of malnutrition.
Other tools, he said, are explaining the links between malnutrition and disease/growth disorders; introduction of acceptable policies and awareness campaigns on dietary diversification.
Conversely, Boyo highlighted the importance of protein diets, saying they are nutrients needed by the human body for growth and maintenance and in membranes such as glycoproteins. “When broken down into amino acids, they are used as precursors to nucleic acid, co-enzymes, hormones, immune response, cellular repair, and other molecules essential for life.
Boyo described a healthy diet as a well balanced diet that contains a variety of nutritious foods such as carbohydrates, proteins, vegetables, fruits, fish, nuts and whole grains.
He insisted that it should be prepared using the best cooking methods and eaten in the right proportion.
He said this would prevent and control morbidity and premature mortality that arise from non-communicable diseases.
The medical doctor recommended eating a wide variety of foods in a day, limiting total fats especially saturated fat, increasing the consumption of fruits and vegetables, legumes, whole grains and nuts as well as limiting the intake of free sugars and salt.
The health expert also gave a special place for vitamins, minerals and roughages in human diets, which he said are the sources of antioxidants, adding that they should be part of menu not a side dish.
He advised that fruits should be eaten before, not after a major meal.
He warned that low consumption of fruits leads to chronic diseases.
He identified potatoes as rich in proteins and useful in weight control and healthy in moderate amount for diabetics.
For proper bowel function, Boyo said regular use of highly processed grains is not healthy, insisting that 50 percent should be whole grains.
He recommended beans as a good low, saturated fat protein source and nuts for reducing the cholesterol levels though caution is required in case of digestive disorders.
On animal protein, he said fish is healthier than meat and that fishes with scales are the best. The healthiest choice, he said, is to eliminate meat while boiled meat is better than fried.