African staple foods are mostly starchy carbohydrates in the form of grains and tubers.
I enjoy writing on nutrition and metabolism because what was taught in physiology and medical biochemistry are in great contrast with the calorie advice that we often hear from health professionals. Now and then I get thank you mails from my readers and they often wonder why they are getting some clarity on nutrition from a physiotherapist. Well, the human body is the ultimate hybrid, with the amazing dynamic ability to switch fuel on the basis of different circumstances, like resting, running, fasting, walking, etc. Therefore, as movement specialists, physiotherapists are trained to understand the skeletal muscle’s preferred fuel in all circumstances and all I’m doing is to bring this clinical skill to the lay population for health promotion.
As the controversies and confusions continue to rage among dieticians, nutrition scientists and dieters of all kinds, I was invited by the African Christian Fellowship, Minnesota Chapter, to make a presentation on the topic titled, “Bringing It Home: What’s Wrong with African Foods?” Clearly, all migration studies have established the fact that there is no known gene protection against chronic diseases, following exposure to the Western lifestyle. I must add that this presentation was via Zoom, with the unique ability to interact with my brothers and sisters a little over 700 miles away from my hometown in Indiana – an endeavour that would have required the inconvenient logistics of driving 10 hours 11 mins or several hours of lay over at airports, before COVID hit the world not long ago.
Back to my presentation, African staple foods are mostly starchy carbohydrates in the form of grains and tubers. As I was trying to put the slides together, our foods, especially in West Africa, initially appeared very boring, as I was hard pressed to come up with a significant list outside maize (corn), yams and cassava. However, between the grains and these root crops, I quickly came up with more than 19 different foods, with surprising realisation on how different these foods are in term of textures, flavours, and tastes. The biggest surprise was that while all the 19 food items need salt, none requires added sugar, including stews and sauces.
Although in limited amount, traditional African foods also contain protein, from beans, domesticated/hunted animals, to fish. In addition, dietary fats come from palm oil, animal fats, melon and groundnuts; the good old foods that had been consumed for thousands of years before the controversial 1950 fat/cholesterol hypothesis, telling the whole world that tropical oils were cholesterol laden artery cloggers. This so-called hypothesis also ignored the fact that Americans consumed lard, tallow and butter, which are saturated animal fats, long before Procter & Gamble introduced crystallised cottonseed oil or Crisco in 1911.
This was truly a gamble on the green coloured dollar over human health. Cotton was and continues to be a two products plant, with seeds and cotton fiber harvests. However, the seeds were problematic as no one knew what to do with them until they were later processed to make oil for soaps and candles. This was further bleached and deodorised to prevent it from going rancid, and it was successfully advertised to the “modern housewives” of the time, with the encouragement to get rid of time-consuming lard and tallow in their kitchens.
Nowadays, you cannot miss these glistering yellow seed oils extracted under intense industrial pressure and marketed, fraudulently, as “vegetable” oil in your local groceries, and I bet your attendant will think you are from Mars if you ask for help to find tallow or lard on the shelves. As a village kid, I remember hearing adults lumping these vegetable oils as one of very many foods called “ounje alakowe”, which loosely means food for the elites.
Back to traditional African foods, the starchy carbohydrates are not processed into mangled matrix with additives for longer shelf live. This helps to preserve the integrity of their fibres, making it difficult to consume insatiably and thus prevent high rates of glucose absorption with sudden glucose surges, characterised by processed foods laden with sweeteners. The biochemistry of glucose, which is the simplest form of starchy food, is highly regulated because the pathway to make the chemical energy called ATP is controlled by how much energy the body needs at any time.
This is the reason why indigenous peoples on any continent are much thinner and leaner, because their lifestyle of frequent physical activity and infrequent food consumption permit the increase need for the Krebs cycle and ATP formation. On the other hand, the excessive consumption of processed foods in the sedentary setting shunts glucose intermediate metabolites to the biosynthetic pathway called pentose phosphate pathway, for making DNA, RNA, nucleotides, cell membranes and thus promotes continuous growth, which may lead to metabolic diseases in the long run.
In the traditional African setting, natural sugar is found in fruits, which cannot be stored until the next harvest season, like grains and tubers. Personally, I remember refined sugar was used occasionally in the village for corn pap and garri, which frankly could be consumed without sugar as they were made to ferment for a few extra days to bring out the sweet-sour taste. In other words, people lived and still live for several weeks without the need for refined sugar. As a child, you always knew that there was no such thing as green tea in the village! Any black, dark or greenish herbal drink was nasty tasting, and you never admitted feeling sick unless it was very bad. In my primary school, during Nigeria’s 10th Independent anniversary, I was initially apprehensive and had to be persuaded that coca cola was not the familiar dark bitter herbal drinks that were forced on kids for any kind of sickness. That was how rare sugary drinks were!
Against seasonal exposure, native Africans and blacks in diaspora now have daily exposure to cheap sugary products in the form of table sugar, fruit juices, soft drinks, ice cream and all kinds of foods with sweeteners. Blacks are known to have the higher prevalence of hypertension compared to whites, and while the controversial “slave journey-hereditary sodium retention” theory has been totally disproved, Professor Olusoga Sofola’s work and other studies have shown that the high percentage of blacks have mutation on subunits of beta epithelial sodium channel that “controls the final adjustments in [kidney] sodium excretion”.
That said, blacks have been exposed to salt since time immemorial and studies have shown that chronic consumption of sugary products increases renal uric acid levels, leading to hypertension and chronic kidney diseases, which probably may be a trigger of the underlying prevalence of beta epithelial sodium channel polymorphism among blacks.
There are other mechanisms leading to hypertension, including direct insult on the lining of blood vessels and kidney from the excessive consumption of processed foods. Therefore, it seems to me that unregulated consumption of processed foods has additive effects on hypertension than salt consumption itself. As the saying goes, genes are not destiny, therefore the less processed foods, the less trigger of the epithelial sodium channel mutation found mostly in blacks. Put differently, staying away from processed sugary products is staying away from salt!
To reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, heart disease and stroke, my advice to the brethren in Twin Cities, Minnesota, was to engage in regular physical activity, staying away from added sugar/sweeteners, as we did back in Africa, the eating of fruits as against drinking fruit juices and finally the consumption of one or two meals a day, for as few days a week as they are able. If this is good for my African brothers and sisters in Twin Cities, Minnesota, it is equally good for all blacks wherever they may be found.
Mukaila Kareem, a doctor of physiotherapy and physical activity advocate, writes from the U.S.A and can be reached through firstname.lastname@example.org