Nutritionists have noted that dietary habits, especially in urban areas, have shifted away from high fibre, homemade foods to pre-prepared, packaged and processed ready-to-eat foods. These are easily accessible in fast food restaurant chains, where people delight in the taste, unaware of the health implications.
“In Uganda, the adoption of the Western eating habits, modernisation and technology has brought about changes in eating trends from homemade meals to the increased consumption of junk and processed foods,” explained Nicholas Musisi, a Nutrition Researcher with Nutri-Worth International.
Non-communicable diseases will account for 80 percent of the global disease burden by 2020, according to the World Health Organization’s 2013 report. Of these non-communicable diseases, 70 percent will be the cause of death in developing countries – dietary and nutritional cultures and habits are a great contributor to such emerging health threats.
Uganda’s Ministry of Health has listed obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and hypertension among the conditions that are increasingly common due to the adoption of unhealthy lifestyles. With lifestyle and cultural changes, individuals are giving less and less thought to what nutritional benefits or health risks come with their dietary choices.
Today, maize is highly refined, wasting important nutrients.”
“For example, before we acquired maize mills, families would grind maize with stones leaving a high fibre content. Today, maize is highly refined, wasting important nutrients,” added Musisi.
The advent of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) has stirred concerns by nutritionist and health experts. In Uganda, most foods consumed are organic, owing to an agriculturally dominant economy. However, the introduction of GMOs in agriculture raises fears about the nutritional value of GM produce, and the impact of potentially lower-quality food on human health.
“Although evidence linking genetically modified foods to cancer is yet insufficient, the consumption of fancy high-fat fast food popularly known as junk food as well as processed foods have been linked with heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and early death,” said Musisi.
With a growth in industrialisation, a shift has been noted from traditional household food processing and preservation methods such as sun drying, salting, fermenting and grinding to more industrialised methods that include the use of preservatives in most foods. Preservatives, including nitrates, have been linked to some types of cancer.
Passing down bad nutrition to children
The shift in our eating habits and cultures has had an adverse impact on the health and nutrition of infants as well. With more women working to support families and the association of breastfeeding with backwardness among young mothers, there has been a notable decline in the breastfeeding of infants.
“The modern young mothers prefer to introduce infants to processed milk and other foods to prevent their breasts from sagging,” explained Dr Hanifa Bachou, a consultant nutritionist in an article on the New Vision daily newspaper.
The modern young mothers prefer to introduce infants to processed milk.”
“This has had the adverse effect of leaving infants with increased susceptibility to diseases such as diarrhoea and measles.”
According to the Uganda Food and Nutrition Policy 2003, the nation is generally food sufficient with a wide range of crops including cereal grains such as maize, millet and sorghum and root crops including cassava, sweet potatoes and Irish potatoes. Bananas are a staple food for a large section of the country. Animal products like dairy and beef, poultry, edible insects and a large variety of fish from inland water sources are also available.
However, access to cheap convenience foods by way of fast-food restaurants and roadside food vendors has reduced the prevalence of local markets and the availability of indigenous and traditional foods.
In the streets of Kampala, Uganda’s bustling capital city, it is common to find trading centre streets filled with food vendors who roast chicken, goat meat, deep fry fish, chips and the famous ‘rolex’, a flat, round, fried bread rolled together with fried eggs. These vendors are the go-to places for inexpensive, time-saving, and convenient fast foods.
The vendors operate freely, however, in generally unsanitary conditions, raising concerns about hygiene and food safety.
“No, the food is safe because it is served while very hot, I buy my food from the streets most nights, and I rarely have any stomach problems,” explained a shopper who only introduced himself as Sam when asked if he had concerns about purchasing food from roadside vendors.
Benefits of traditional food
Setting aside cultural influences as a result of modernisation, indigenous and traditional food habits are mostly associated with a variety of health benefits and even beauty. Many leafy foods and vegetables are rich sources of vitamins, iron, fibre and unsaturated fatty acids. Examples of such foods include boo, hibiscus (malakwang), nakati, amaranth (dodo), eggplants, and okra.
Great diversity exists within ethnic cultures. Traditionally, food defines social class, lifestyles and gender roles. Each communities’ unique dishes and methods of preparation and presentation reflects their unique history, belief, lifestyle and values.
Inherent traditions may dictate what may or may not be eaten by certain members of the community, such as pregnant women. Ironically, the foods often prohibited are highly nutritious.
Odoch Obwangamoi takes pride in maintaining a healthy and nutritious diet by not deviating too far from his native, Acholi indigenous eating habits.
Our foods are made with lots of care.”
The Acholi, a Nilotic ethnic group of Northern Uganda, can be termed as a model community when it comes to nutritious and sumptuous foods. They have famous traditional meals with a variety of healthy, leafy foods prepared with millet bread (kwon kal).
“Wherever I am, I always try to find my traditional foods because nothing beats them when it comes to taste and nutritional value,” said Obwangamoi. “Our foods are made with lots of care, and some can be prepared over long periods of time. The majority of our foods are vegetables,” he added.
The Acholi are both pastoralists and farmers, the cows are kept mostly for milk, with bush meat providing protein. Cereal grains and lentils like lapena, choroco, ngoo, greens like malakwanga and boo make up the rich diet.
Malakwanga, a leafy vegetable also known as Hibiscus sabdariffa is said to have healing properties to increase breast milk for breastfeeding women and building immunity by helping in the production of white blood cells. White ants (ngwen), shea butter and sesame (simsim) are also an important component of the Acholi foods.
People in #Uganda enjoying a white ant meal. Insects are a rich source of protein, essential fatty acids and minerals like iron. #Nile #NileCooperation #Food #FoodSecurityhttps://t.co/HUeusWWVZX pic.twitter.com/xdUz3cs244— The Niles (@TheNiles2012) December 19, 2019