Standing before a buffet of fried rice, white rice, Ofada rice, stews, various sauces, plantain, different meats and fish, and a larger variety of desserts than I had ever witnessed at a children’s birthday party recently, I wondered what to do about my increasing girth. Afterwards, as I ate, I marvelled at the interest of the children only in the potato chips and hot dogs; and none whatsoever in the delicious fried yam accompanied by fish stew. There was a larger variety of desserts than I had ever seen at such an event. However, it did not include any fruit or a fruit salad.
Nutrition in Nigeria presents a complex dilemma. We have the challenge of malnutrition as a result of insufficient food; and also nutritional deficiencies as a result of poor food choices among those who can afford to buy them. On the side of malnutrition, due to non-availability/non-affordability of food, the situation is dire among children in particular. In addition to inadequate food availability, deficiency in essential micronutrients - such as iron, vitamin A, iodine, and zinc - is a crucial factor in malnutrition.
Nigeria is among the countries with the highest number of underweight children; around six million, according to UNICEF reports. Recent research also indicates that malnutrition kills as many children under five as all the other childhood diseases. According to UNICEF, developmental retardation (wasting and stunting), resulting from malnutrition, affects over forty per cent of children in Nigeria. Malnourished children are more likely to suffer and die from diseases like diarrhoea and respiratory infections, become prone to falling ill, and have lowered learning ability.
On the other hand, changes in dietary habits have seen people who can afford to eat properly eating lots of processed foods. I have witnessed many dietary changes in Nigeria over the years. Rice used to be a Sunday affair; soft drinks used to be a special occasion affair; fried meats were an occasional indulgence. While our staples of garri, yams and rice remain, children now have sugary drinks in packs as snacks for school or at home on a daily basis. Hot dogs and potato fries and ketchup are now staples in some homes of a certain income bracket. Noodles are considered essential, sometimes daily meals across all income levels.
These changes are relevant as recent studies suggest that non-communicable diseases, such as diabetes, hypertension, cancer, stroke and heart disease, are on the rise in developing countries like Nigeria; as a result of changes in dietary habits, and increasingly sedentary lifestyles.
Scientists have showed that there is a significant link between white rice and diabetes; and this should alarm many Nigerians as it does me. In my case, having lived in different places and sampled different foods, one thing has remained constant – my love for rice. I still eat rice frequently, sometimes several times a week. At the risk of over generalisation, this is a characteristic I share with many Nigerians. The various fast food restaurants in Nigeria testify to our love affair with rice.
In 2002, the federal government released the National Policy on Food and Nutrition; and there are other relevant policies. Legislation which provide in some way for nutrition also exist; for example, the Lagos State School Health Law. In subsequent columns, I will discuss these policies and government strategies such as promotion of micro-nutrient fortification and school feeding programs, and the part that government agencies such as the Federal Ministry of Health and the National Agency for Food and Drugs Administration and Control have played, could and should play.
In this initial part, I would like to consider nutrition in very human terms. One major issue that the nutrition challenges indicate in Nigeria is the existing inequality in the country. Some have too much to eat, while the greater majority, including a significant number of children, have very little. While there are churches, civil society groups, and private individuals working to level the field, we need to pay more attention to this matter. Can we find ways to engage, to help, to put food on someone’s table?
The other major matter is getting educated about nutrition. My experience is that there is some ignorance about nutrition. That is perhaps the only way to explain some of the food choices that people make; whether this relates to eating inadequate fruits and vegetables, downing bottles of soft drinks on a regular basis, eating too much red meat, not eating enough fish or not breastfeeding etc. The assumption is usually that people know. This is not always true, and it applies to almost every income bracket.
The last major issue is doing something with the information we have. One could have all the relevant information on nutrition, like I have done for years in relation to rice, and simply ignore such information. But we do so, not only at our own peril, but at significant risk of passing on bad dietary habits to our children and one of the best way to put our health in check is to cultivate the habit of what I call Maintenance health care or wellness through taking supplements that boost your body system at the cellular level.
It is almost a cliché to say that we are what eat. I would add that sometimes we are what we fail to eat. This is certainly true of children whose intellectual abilities are limited because of inadequate food. Let us think of these things as we put the next morsel of food in our mouths today.
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