It has become critical for urban Nigerians to change their dietary habits and lifestyles to prevent further disease and avoidable deaths. In this article, I share some of the essential changes needed to make urban Nigerian diets healthy.
I’m not sure how or when the misconception about Nigerian diets being unhealthy began, but it has spread so much that people believe it’s true when it’s, in fact, false.
Before urbanisation, African diets were plant-based, consisting of unrefined grains, starchy vegetables, including plantains, sweet potatoes and yams, leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds, and fruits. Red meat, seafood and poultry were eaten in small quantities, and the cooking oil was restricted to unrefined palm oil.
Since the birth of urbanisation in 1975, African diets have gradually become heavily processed, with soft drinks, refined grain products and fast food becoming popular, glamorised, and regarded as symbols of high status. Consequently, obesity, cardiovascular diseases (CVD), cancers and other preventable lifestyle diseases have become commonplace.
It’s worth noting that traditional Nigerian and African diets, in general, are associated with some nutritional deficiencies, mainly due to poverty and the high consumption of plant-based foods containing phytates that block nutrient absorption. That said, nutritional deficiencies are reversible if diets are planned correctly and include moderate amounts of animal protein.
Nigerians living in urban areas and Western societies must change their dietary habits and lifestyles to prevent further disease and avoidable deaths. In this article, I share some of the essential changes needed to make urban Nigerian diets healthier.
The Current State of Affairs
Infectious diseases such as typhoid and cholera are still the leading cause of disease in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). However, the rates of chronic non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as CVD, type 2 diabetes and cancers are increasing rapidly.
Data from the Global Burden of Disease Study showed that disease and disability rates due to NCDs rose from 18.6% in 1990 to 29.8% in 2017 in SSA. While CVD was the leading cause of NCDs in SSA, accounting for 15.1% of the total NCD burden, cancers (particularly cervical and breast cancers) and mental disorders were the second and third leading causes of NCDs, accounting for 11.2% and 9.0% of the total NCD burden, respectively.
The rise in NCDs in SSA is mainly the result of urbanisation and the adoption of Western-style high-fat, high-sugar and processed food diets. Unfortunately, many people in urban areas regard such dietary patterns as a status symbol and aspire to eat that way.
Cooking methods have also changed dramatically, with individuals deep frying meat, poultry and seafood in vegetable oils or using copious amounts of palm oil for cooking tomato-based stews and seed-based soups. Vegetable and fruit consumption are minimal, while refined grain and flour products are incredibly high.
This shift in dietary patterns and cooking methods have led to the dramatic rise in overweight and obesity in SSA, known risk factors for NCDs. In 2014, more than 1.9 billion adults aged 18 and older in SSA were overweight.
Women are more affected than men, with 15% of women obese compared with 11% of men. Children are also affected; Overweight and obesity in African children have almost doubled from 5.4 million in 1990 to 10.6 million in 2014.
The current situation is dire!
Recommended Changes for a Healthy Nigerian Diet
1 | Change your grains and flours
We tend to eat white rice and bake with white, refined flour frequently. Refined products have lost the bran and germ layer, containing beneficial vitamins, minerals, and fibre we need for health.
Swapping refined grains and flours with unrefined versions is crucial. So, instead of eating only white rice, consider adding brown, black, red and traditional rice varieties such as ofada to your diet.
2 | Check your cooking oils and fats
Palm oil and groundnut oils used to be the primary cooking oils before urbanisation. Nowadays, we rely on heavily processed vegetable oils from cottonseed, corn, soybean and canola seeds. Vegetable oils contain essential omega-6 fats that we need for health. However, we use them excessively without increasing our omega-3 intake, causing low-grade inflammation and possibly, chronic disease.
Besides, vegetable oils are prone to forming damaging free radicals when heated to high temperatures. Free radicals cause oxidative stress that is associated with many chronic diseases like CVD and cancers.
Minimise or eliminate vegetable oils. Replace them with fruit oils such as palm, avocado, olive, and coconut oils. Palm and coconut oils are rich in saturated fat, so use them moderately.
3 | Optimise your portions
Consuming more food (energy) than you need causes overweight and obesity. Therefore, it’s crucial to balance your energy/food intake with your daily needs. Energy needs vary from person to person as it depends on age, lifestyle, physical activity, gender, and weight.
That said, some people retain their ability to eat intuitively – eating when hungry, stopping when satisfied, but others have unfortunately lost this ability. If you’re still able to eat intuitively, focus on choosing whole, unprocessed foods, and your body will naturally determine the correct amounts of food you need.
However, if you’ve lost your ability to eat intuitively, you may need to work with a registered dietitian/nutritionist to relearn the correct food portions and eventually intuitive eating.
4 | Improve the nutrient density of your diet – eat more fruits and vegetables
You can improve the nutrient density of your diet by eating more whole, unprocessed foods, especially fruits and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables contain many beneficial vitamins and minerals and have been linked to lower risks of chronic diseases. They are also rich in fibre, which is crucial for digestive and cardiovascular health.
Most Africans living in urban and Western countries eat minimal quantities of fruit and vegetables. You can boost your fruit intake by using them as toppings for oatmeal and pancakes, incorporating dried fruit into salads and rice dishes and enjoying them as a snack with nut butter.
Eat more vegetables by adding them to rice dishes, soups, and stews, blending with fruit to make smoothies or making dips such as salsa, hummus, and baba ghanoush. And if cost is a concern, choose seasonal fruits and vegetables and buy from a farmer’s market instead of supermarkets.
5 | Check your beverages
High sugar intake, especially when the overall diet is unhealthy, increases the risk of obesity and chronic diseases. Sugar-sweetened beverages are one of the largest sources of free sugars in the diet. And unfortunately, consuming soft drinks (soda) with meals or snacks and adding multiple sugar cubes to coffee, tea, hot chocolate, cereals is the norm in Nigeria.
Each bottle of soft drink can contain up to 10 teaspoons of sugar, which is more than the recommended six teaspoons of added sugars for women daily.
Most people are oblivious to the amount of sugar they consume and its health consequences. Assess your sugar intake and if high, consider replacing soft drinks with water or fruit-flavoured water and avoid adding excessive amounts of sugar to beverages and cereals.
6 | Read labels on packaged foods
We don’t always have the time to cook meals from scratch, and that’s okay. Packaged foods are handy when we need quick meals. They can also be sources of vitamins and minerals, especially if they’re fortified.
That said, not all packaged foods are created equal.
Despite the buzzwords advertised on food packaging, some ready meals and packaged foods are high in sugar, salt, saturated fat, vegetable oils and additives. And for some foods, the sugar, saturated fat and salt content overshadow the possible health benefits of the added vitamins and minerals.
Always read the ingredients on packaged foods and choose foods with low to moderate salt, sugar, and saturated fat. Avoid foods with trans-fats and genetically modified (GM) ingredients.
7 | Change your cooking methods
Where possible, avoid deep frying. Grill, bake, stir-fry, air-fry or boil instead. Avoid using salt excessively; instead, use herbs and spices to boost flavour.
And there you have it, the changes you must make to eat a healthy Nigerian diet
When prepared the traditional way, Nigerian food is incredibly nutritious. Most recipes use minimally processed ingredients and often include fermented foods that promote gut health. Moreover, recipes involve boiling and stewing; deep frying is minimal, added sugars are almost non-existent and saturated fat (predominantly from palm oil) is moderate.
Palm oil is an essential source of beta-carotene and vitamin A in Nigeriandiets and shouldn’t be eliminated, especially if meat consumption is minimal.
Making all these changes at once can be daunting and challenging. And that’s why I always recommend making one change at a time. Pick the most straightforward recommendation for you and start there. Once you get a handle on it, pick another one and repeat the process until you’ve changed your entire diet.
If you find it challenging to implement these changes yourself, work with a registered dietician or nutritionist who can consider your unique lifestyle and preferences and develop a tailored programme for you.
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