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Experts Say Traditional Diet is Better for you

FOR the past 7 years, Faresi Nyamadzawo, 68, of Harare has jabbed herself with a shot of insulin twice everyday, or more than 5,100 times, just so she may live.

Without it, the grandmother of 7 may go into shock–and that has happened a couple of times–pushing her to the brink of death. She cannot take it anymore.

“It is not easy that medication defines how you live your everyday life,” Nyamadzawo lamented in an interview.

“There are a lot of limitations for people like me. Doctors advise against eating many of the foods I love. I have even been told to avoid being too happy or too sad lest I enter into shock.”

Nyamadzawo is diabetic, a high blood sugar condition affecting 46 percent of Zimbabwean adults today, and rising fast, just as much as all of its non-communicable cousins, threatening to dislodge HIV/AIDS as the number one killer.

Diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, cancer, heart attacks or strokes now account for 31 percent of all deaths in the country, twice as much they did 20 years ago, according to a 2014 World Health Organisation (WHO) report.

Worldwide, at least 23 million people die each year from non-communicable diseases (NCDs), with a 27 percent rise in new cases expected across Africa by 2030, the report says.

Return To Basics

Now, experts say Zimbabweans are eating incorrectly and must make a quick return to traditional diets–whole unprocessed foods, with limited chemicals and preservatives in their production and manufacturing.

Such foods include whole grains with roughage such as mhunga (pearl millet), mapfunde (sorghum) and zviyo (finger millet), key parts of the diet before the coming of white settlers in 1890.

Traditional diets tended to lean more towards natural vegetables like nyevhe (spider flower leaves), muboora (pumpkin leaves), munyemba (cowpea leaves) and mowa (wild spinach), says Mandivamba Rukuni, a professor of agriculture and former dean of agriculture at the University of Zimbabwe.

Meat was consumed in moderation, with the ‘road runner’–a type of indigeneous chicken–appearing in many dishes, in many homes.

“Over the last Century, Africans are increasingly suffering from lifestyle diseases, which in the past were peculiar to industrialised societies of Europe and the US,” said Rukuni, by email.

“With urbanisation and increases in income, people consume more animal products and animal fat, leading to challenges with cholesterol, heart problems and hypertension.

“It is now proven that most foods produced using the industrial model–both crops, vegetables or fruits and meat–use too many chemicals, medicines, processed animal feeds, which all contain cancerous agents and other toxins.”

Colonialism paved the way for NCDs

Medical doctor, Vivek Solanki of Trauma Centre in Harare, indicated that for native Zimbabweans, NCDs were unheard of during the early years of, and before colonialism because “the traditional diets of the ancient Bantu people was conducive to good healthy living.”

But everything changed with the wholesale introduction of maize by Europeans in the 19th Century, considered a cheaper option to feeding the thousands of forced labourers working in the mines, industry and on farms.

Maize, now the Zimbabwean staple, is rich in starch. However, refined mealie meal or rice–too refined as we see today–takes out all the roughage out of the food, leaving pure starch, almost pure sugar when that carbohydrate is digested, experts say.

“Inappropriate consumption of refined starches and other cheap, processed Western foods such as chips, rice, hamburgers, fried chicken and bread and super refined alcohols do not agree to the genetic makeup of Zimbabweans,” said Dr Solanki.

“Traditional vegetables and fruits are ancient and healthy for our genetic makeup. The sedentary modern computer and cellphone age has also added to the demise of our health as today children sit and play games on the screen instead of being active in sport and other outdoor activities.”

To Dr Solanki, non-communicable dieseases are “Western Diseases” that are being fuelled by the explosive fast foods industry.

In order to provide cheap meats, legumes and starches, food suppliers use hormones and antibiotics to quickly fatten their cattle and chickens, he alleges.

Suppliers have also turned to genetically modified (GMs) seeds for vegetable and fruit production as well as the use of poisonous pesticides and fertilisers to increase agriculture yields.

Genetically modified foods are widely considered unsafe for human consumption, with a recent study by French scientist, Professor Gilles Eric Seralini, saying they caused cancers, and increased the risk of an array of illnesses.

Seralini’s study is the world’s first long-term research on the lifetime effects of Roundup, the most common herbicide worldwide. GMs are engineered to carry the herbicide. Roundup “causes severe liver and kidney damage and sex-dependent hormonal effects, such as mammary tumours from very low environmental levels,” the study concluded.

Hope Not Lost

The WHO says Zimbabwe is failing to contain the rising cases of non-communicable diseases.

Out of nine critical national systems response to NCDs, the country has only one, an operational NCD unit in the Ministry of Health.

Among many things, Zimbabwe does not have “an operational multi-sectoral national policy, strategy or action plan that integrates several NCDs and shared risk factors” nor a plan “to reduce unhealthy diet and or promote healthy diets.”

With national authorities missing in action, affected individuals can help themselves live better by changing their eating habits.

A nutritionist’s advice

A nutritionist with a Harare food company who spoke on condition he was not named said those battling non-infectitious diseases needed to monitor their diets more closely, consuming more of unprocessed traditional foods.

That means taking only 25 percent of starch from foods like sorghum, millet, sweet potatoes or traditional rice.

Another 25 percent of protein may be sourced from meat, chicken (preferrably the road runner) and nyemba (cowpea) taken as mutakura (a mixture of boiled round nuts and cowpea).

Nzungu (groundnuts) used as dovi (peanut butter) or gwatakwata (cooked peanut butter) are a good protein source, too, said the nutrionist. Fats may be extracted from the ‘road runners’ and meat.

Legumes, wild fruits and traditional vegetables should constitute 40 percent of the diet for someone living with diabetes or hypertension.

Such foods, which are a major source of carbohydrates, include nyimo (round nuts) eaten boiled as mutakura, muboora (pumpkin leaves) and mowa (wild spinach).

Fruits include mawonde (wild figs), manwiwa (water melons), matamba (wild orange), bananas, papaya and others.

“Traditional mahewu (a maize or sorghum-based non-alcoholic brew), is healthier than refined beers or whiskeys,” said the nutritionist.

“Moderate exercise in the form of walking, cycling, etc, would keep the metabolism and health in check.”

Many of the recommended traditional foods can be grown in one’s backyard, helping to cut costs.

Tough to turn traditional

However, it will not be all smooth sailing. Traditional crops (especially grains) take longer to process before cooking.

“Dehulling takes time and usually involves soaking, then taking the seed-coat off before grinding,” said Professor Rukuni.

“This also explains why maize has taken over in a period of less than 100 years- it is easier to process before cooking and takes less time for women who are already quite busy and over-worked at home.”

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