White bread, nsima (also known as ugali or fufu), chapati, white rice, white spaghetti or pasta, are the foods I am talking about. Many of us are “addicted” to them. We make them the priority food on our plate. We go back for seconds when we can. They are on the top of the list when we go food shopping and depending on where we are based, they may take up a good portion of our food-shopping budget. They are a must in most homes if you want your kids – and adults – to be happy at mealtime. A meal would not be complete without them. The problem with processed grains such as corn into the flour used for nsima is that it strips the kernel of its most nutritious parts, the germ and the bran. As a result, what people consume is a simple carbohydrate that is easily digestible and accessible as a source of energy for the body, but this energy does not last long. Therefore, it requires a frequent supply of other quick sources of energy, something that is preventable with a more balanced meal, not dominated by a large plate or bowl of nsima, pasta, or rice.
These foods also raise blood sugar levels too fast, and naturally drop it fast as well, hence the reason why you may feel tired, sleepy and at times irritable and moody after eating a high starch meal. And sooner or later, these “white foods” affect blood sugar levels, cause weight gain and affect belly fat in ways that make it hard to lose it. These “white foods” are also some of the least nutritious foods we can consume and we may not take their “side effects” seriously at first, but eventually, they declare a war on our bodies. This is particularly a concern for those who consume them three times a day starting perhaps with bread and tea, or boxed corn flakes or uji made of processed corn flour for breakfast, then a sandwich with white bread or a meal with predominantly white rice for lunch, and a different meal with white pasta for dinner. To those not familiar with nsima, it is similar to grits in southern US cuisine and is prepared differently in different parts of Sub-Saharan Africa where it is a staple. Why am I focusing on these foods?
Nsima on its own plate. Nsimais popular in homes and restaurants particularly in southern Africa and in some parts of eastern Africa.
Let’s be honest. There are more and more people everywhere in the world who are becoming overweight and much of the fat accumulation is around the belly. There are those who try to lose this belly fat but find themselves losing some weight, but not necessarily the abdominal fat. This fat is more stubborn, and at the same time, it is the most problematic fat the body jealously holds onto. Some heavy drinkers have fatty livers that show as a fat belly. Others may not even drink alcohol but still have a belly that is as fat as the one of people who drink more beer or wine than the body can safely handle. And while there are many factors that impact how our bodies accumulate fat, one is related to the amount of processed white flour foods and other high glycemic index starches we consume. It is a problem in many communities throughout sub-Saharan Africa. And it is a problem here in the US as well. An open conversation and education in wellness is urgently needed and it must include foods and other practices that may be at the heart of this excess and dangerous body fat. This is a public health crisis that we cannot ignore if we want to continue working to improve health outcomes in communities around the world.
That these processed carbohydrates are problematic is not new in the scientific world. In fact, we can look as far back as almost two hundred years ago. In 1825, French lawyer and chemist Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin commented: “Oh Heavens above! But what a wretch the Professor is! Here in a single word he forbids us everything we most love, those little rolls….and those cookies… and a hundred other things made with flour and butter, with flour and sugar and eggs! He doesn’t even leave us potatoes, or macaroni! Who would have thought this of a lover of good food who seemed so pleasant?” In the 1850’s British doctor, William Harvey concluded that: “A combination of animal food with such vegetable diet as contained neither sugar nor starch, might serve to arrest the undue formation of fat.” In 1901, Dr William Osler’s recommendation to those who wanted to lose excess weight was that they “Avoid taking too much food, and particularly to reduce the starches and sugars.” Many other health professionals came to the same conclusions in the 1940s and 1950s: carbohydrates, especially the processed ones, are a problem for anyone who gains weight easily.
More recently in 2001, Walter Willett, professor at Harvard’s School of Public Health, makes reference to this issue in his book, Eat, Drink and Be Healthy. He addresses the correlation between eating easily digestible carbohydrates and the tendency to overeat and gain weight: “In a recent … study involving a dozen overweight boys at Children’s hospital in Boston, those who ate specially prepared breakfasts enriched with easily digestible carbohydrates snacked almost twice as much during the morning as those who ate breakfasts containing the same number of calories but fewer rapidly digested carbohydrates.” Science writer Gary Taubes, in his 2011 book, Why We Get Fat, states that: “Carbohydrates cause obesity and the abstinence from starches, flour, and sugars is the obvious method of cure and prevention.”
So, how could we, nearly two hundred years later, still be trying to figure out what to do to maintain a healthy weight? Is it a matter of lack of knowledge, goodwill or something else? Whatever it may be, it would serve many to learn about food and what it means to eat right so as to maintain a healthy weight. There are numerous books written about the negative impact of an overconsumption of certain foods and the ones I put in the “white foods” category are among them. Many experts have found that these foods act like sugar in the body. And sugar is addictive. They are addictive because the more you eat them, the quicker you get hungry again and the cycle repeats itself. They are addictive also because they stimulate the brain’s reward centers through the neurotransmitter dopamine. And “when you continue to ‘use’ sugar and processed foods, your dopamine receptors are decreased. That means you need more and more of the addictive substance to generate the same amount of pleasure. This dynamic is called tolerance” as Mark Hyman, a practitioner of Functional Medicine writes.
Those of us who work in international development should therefore include healthy eating as a key component of good development practice. This is especially crucial in places where many have adopted the “no nsima no food” attitude! You can replace nsima here with fufu, ugali, or rice, or bread or pasta. We need role models – expert practitioners who not only understand what it takes to maintain the right balance, but who will use their knowledge and practice to educate others in villages and communities, in rural or urban environments, on ways to use food to restore a healthy balance. These are experts who will transform lives and create visible, lasting, and positive change. Perhaps some of it will take us back to the basics and some of the old ways of our grandparents and great grandparents. Among them was a diverse diet with mostly foods that were in season. For many in Eastern and Central Africa – the region I am more familiar with – starches included included corn, cassava, wheat, green bananas, and sweet and white potatoes for starches. Any processing of the grains included most parts of the whole grain in the final product. Vegetables included lots of cabbage, various types of leafy green vegetables, tomatoes, eggplants, pumpkin and legumes such as beans and dried yellow peas were plentiful in season as well. There was also a variety of fruits, including Japanese plums, avocadoes, oranges, mangoes, jackfruit, and papaya. Kids collected wild berries, including raspberries, blackberries and golden berries. Beef and chicken were treats, not cake or candy!
Most of these foods lasted one season, while others such as grains were abundant and lasted up to a year. Most of our food was organic. Maintaining a healthy diet was guided by this natural provision of a wide array of food choices that were abundant for a season, but were then replaced by different crops that kept us going through the seasons. We looked forward to the rainy season that ended with a corn, pumpkin and other vegetable harvest. And we enjoyed potatoes, beans, peas and wild berries in the dry season. So long as the seasonal patterns were predicable, we could maintain a healthy diet over a period of weeks and months or perhaps a year. We could not measure it by daily food consumption. We had plenty of foods and variety some seasons, less of it other times. We kept our seeds and knew when to get our gardens ready for planting before the new rains came around in September, for a spring harvest. We also knew when to lay the land fallow so as to give it a break between crops. We added compost and manure regularly, hence keeping the soil fertile without the need for chemical fertilizers.
These were our practices and being overweight was an exception. Nowadays, in rural and urban communities in Africa (and in the US,) there are more and more people, young and old, who weigh more than is healthy for them and the problem is that more of the weight shows as fat accumulation around the belly. To those who have developed the attitude that “without nsima, I don’t feel satisfied” and must therefore have it with every meal, you might have to rethink your food preferences and go back to diversifying, especially the carbohydrates. This alone will not address your imbalances, but if you focus on balancing your meals, which includes reducing the quantity and frequency of consumption of white flour foods and white rice, you will at least start moving in the right direction of reducing your belly fat. A balanced meal includes plenty of vegetables, a good protein, a healthy fat, some fruits, and a reasonable amount of the starch prepared the old-fashioned way, which for grains would include, not just the starchy endosperm but also the germ and the bran. Brown rice would replace white rice for example, at least for some of the meals, if that is your preferred starch. A balanced meal will keep you fuller for longer and stop you from overeating. A balanced meal will provide the micro and macronutrients you need for a healthy body and mind.
May this be your season of health, balance and happiness so that together we can bring our best knowledge and our best selves to others in development!