May 18, 2024

The problem with Nigerian diet and how to fix it


By Tochi Okafor

A few years ago, I began my study into nutrition. As someone who educates on fitness, I realised quickly that nutrition is the most significant component. I dedicated time into taking courses and reading lots of books and research papers. Some of my favourite resources are Harvard health & Stanford Online.

Nigeria boasts an abundance of nutritious foods, yet what ends up on our plates often falls short. It’s not just about the food itself but also how we combine and consume it.

For ages, various food cultures have been studied, revealing certain diets that promote longevity through nutrition. After all, nothing impacts our cells and organs more than what we eat and drink.

While there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to eating, the healthiest diets share common traits. They’re rich in plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and legumes, while also emphasizing lean proteins such as fish and poultry, and minimizing processed meats, sweets, refined carbs, and alcohol.

One diet renowned for its health benefits worldwide is the Mediterranean diet. In 2020, I experimented with this eating style, and I created a totally new physique.

I lost 5kg of body fat in less than 90 days, my waistline shrunk by a lot of inches also. Mind you, my intention wasn’t to lose weight only to try out a recommended healthy eating pattern. Beyond losing weight, I had more energy to the point where I completed 10km runs. Indeed, there are benefits to this diet.

In this article, I’ll outline practical adjustments to the traditional Nigerian diet inspired by the Mediterranean approach.

The Mediterranean diet is based on the traditional eating patterns of people who live in areas bordering the Mediterranean Sea, such as southern Italy, Greece, and Crete. These patterns vary from one country to the next, but they have healthy eating principles in common.

They usually enjoy a wide variety of fresh fruits & vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and fish. Red wine is consumed in moderation (one drink a day for women; two drinks a day for men). The fat comes mainly from olive oil. Dairy and red meat are limited. Studies have linked this dietary pattern with several health benefits, including reduced risks for cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes.

U.S. News & World Report ranked the Mediterranean diet No. 1 on its 40 Best Diets Overall list for 2022, citing a “host of health benefits, including weight loss, heart and brain health, cancer prevention, and diabetes prevention and control.

Here are four recommendations to align the Nigerian diet with Mediterranean principles:

Prioritize Non-Starchy Vegetables: Nigerian meals often centre around rice and animal proteins, lacking in fiber-rich vegetables. When a person eats consistently without enough fiber, digestion isn’t as effective and that can lead to all sorts of health issues. Also, eating white rice without any fiber leads to a spike in blood sugar, done consistently can lead to insulin sensitivity and this has been linked to the onset of lifestyle diseases like type 2 diabetes. With traditional Mediterranean diet, vegetables take centre stage in most meals, they are consumed in abundance and refined carbs like white rice doesn’t make a daily appearance. To mirror this healthy diet style- Nigerians need include vegetables like steamed Ugu, Green, Eforiro to their meals.

Moderate Red Meat: We love meat. I have seen people consume 5-6 big pieces of meat in one meal especially when eating Amala. There’s something about eating a piece of meat with every handful and I used to love it myself. While red meat is a great protein source – a high consumption is linked to heart disease. Red meat is high in saturated fat, which can increase LDL (bad) cholesterol levels. By mirroring the Mediterranean diet, which prioritizes fish over red meat, I introduced meatless days to my diet in 2020. Two days a week without any animal protein and I also started eating lots of titus fish. We can do with some adjustments in our consumption of meat and include more fish and white meat like chicken (without the skin).

Minimize Processed Foods: The four most common and most accessible foods for most Nigerians based on my observation are White rice, White bread, Spaghetti and noodles. These foods are highly processed and high consumption is not advised. Did you know that some noodles have as much as 1100 mg of sodium per pack? There are people who eat 2 or packs in one meal- this shoots your sodium intake beyond the recommended daily amount (1500-2300 mg). Remember this is just one meal and sodium is present in almost everything we eat. A high sodium diet can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke. To mirror the Mediterranean style diet, I swapped these foods for whole foods like sweet potatoes, plantain, and beans. These are unprocessed and nutrient-dense foods.

Embrace Fruits Daily: I am privileged to teach basic nutrition. I have had the privilege of working with over 100 women directly and many more indirectly and it’s obvious that eating fruits daily isn’t ingrained into the eating culture of most of us. Fruits are the most accessible means to meet your fiber intake for the day. With sufficient fiber, digestion is effective, and your digestive health impacts your immune system, your mental health, and your overall well-being. My personal experience of chronic constipation is the reminder I need to never miss a day of fruit. To mirror the Mediterranean style of eating, make fruits a daily affair to improve your gut health and overall wellbeing.

My advocacy for a whole-food diet stems from personal experience and extensive research. By blending the vibrancy of Nigerian culinary traditions with the wellness principles of the Mediterranean diet, we pave the way for a balanced, nourishing eating style that safeguards against disease and fosters vitality.

Thank you for reading.

Feel free to connect with me via email at [email protected]

Vanguard News