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March 17, 2018

Wait! Before you put it in your mouth…

By Morenike Taire

All of a sudden, Nigerian women and men alike have turned to faddish diets to solve their nutritional, health and even beauty problems. The most popular by far of these is the ketogenic diet, which involves practitioners eating mostly fatty foods while shunning carbohydrate rich foods altogether.

Starved completely of the energy giving nutrient, the idea is that the body would be forced to let go of its fat storage capacity as the body’s store of fat would have to be broken down to provide energy to the entire system.

There is an entire value chain attached to this. All kinds of food are eaten by practitioners that no one had known about before, including a variety of rice that is completely empty of calories. People on the ketogenic- otherwise known as “keto” diet are required to eat swallows consisting not of the local garri, fufu and pounded yam but of ground vegetables.

These swallows are then given their consistencies by the addition of a floury substance that is also not locally made. Thus, in addition to being abominably expensive, the diet requires practitioners to consume copious amounts of substances that are not locally made and mostly imported. They have no control over the constitution of such foods, and do not have much help from a crippled NAFDAC.

While such fat diets have been known to generally work in terms of realizing the objectives to which they are adhered to, little is known about their side effects. No research is done by either the seller of the products or their consumers, who carry on in blissful ignorance.

It is not a new phenomenon. A huge array and variety of so called food supplements and later beauty products have for two decades now spurned a thriving multilevel marketing sector, which in turn feeds on the largely informal private sector of the economy. Practitioners, mainly women, sell mostly in offices, homes and places of worship and are required to do the job of a doctor and a pharmacist rolled into one.

Mostly, they do not even have backgrounds in medicine and medical sciences and do not plan to do so, as they are told they do not have to receive any kind of training apart from those with which to sell the products.

Funds received from these transactions are of course never accounted for by the formal economy, and are therefore mostly untaxed or undertaxed- but that is a topic for another day. Nigeria has perhaps one of the loosest thriving economy in the world, where side shows are far more active and larger in scope than the real shows.

It would have been bad enough if it were just an economic issue but it is not. These influxes have unleashed on us a completely new class of illnesses, diseases and syndromes for which neither the economy nor the health sector is prepared.

This does not even include our relatively new obsession with feeding our children with noodles- highly processed, low fibre, high sodium foods which are nevertheless sold as being nutritious unchallenged by our food administration agencies.

But perhaps most frightening of all is the influx of all kinds of food produce which have now gone beyond the shelves of foreign retailers and found their way into market stalls. These days, it has become virtually impossible to find our local groundnut and melon oils in our markets and when we find them, they are too expensive to be staple. Coconut oil, which has become more commonplace, is used more in the beauty industry, and of course in fad dieting.

We have heard about plastic rice, milk products that have been tampered with even though we have two million lactating cows within our shores; as well as plastic varieties of even local foods such as pap and garri. The entire market is flooded with genetically modified beans and soya products, totally unchallenged. We now have yams that get rotten in two weeks, for some bizarre reason, as well as carrots that do not survive without refrigeration.

Fruits and vegetables that are locally grown are covered in herbicides and insecticides, not to talk about unfriendly fertilizers. The result is a frightening deluge of illnesses, ranging from all kinds of cancers to kidney and liver disease; not to mention hypertension and heart disease.

This is becoming a national emergency, with young people dropping off at an alarming rate. The ministries of Agriculture and Trade should pay more attention to feeding Nigeria with better food than to exporting yams.