By Valerie Mungau and William Jiang, MLS
You have heard the expression; you are what you eat. Truer words were never spoken. Simply, it means: food and drink are fuel for your brain and body. The better quality your fuel, the better your brain and body will perform.
Africa is the second largest continent in the world. It is rich in geographic and cultural diversity. The culture of food in the different regions of Africa is important to people throughout the world. Many of the staple foods in Africans’ diet are good for the health, from leafy green vegetables to fresh juicy fruits. Part of African culinary history is, of course, that the foods have sustained a people for ages. We are seeing a rise in the popularity of the vibrant flavors and delicious foods that offer a key to better health in the African communities. One can never go wrong when you go back to your roots.
Traditional diet is the kind of food your grandmother would have cooked. Interestingly , traditional foodstuffs are associated with a lower risk of mental health issues. Traditional diets vary widely across cultures. However, the common element that ties them together is a lack of processing of the foods and the nutrient-dense food that permeates each culture. The association between healthy diet and mental well-being starts well before birth.
There are so many benefits of greens such as kales, spinach, and traditional herbs such as ‘Kunde’, ‘terere’ etc. because they are low in calories and high in nutrients, such as B vitamins. Fish like omena and mbutaa have omega3s, which are great for cardiovascular and mental health. Also, you can make kale chips, a kale and avocado smoothie, and kale based salads- also known as ‘kachumbari’ in East Africa.
Poverty in Africa influences how people cook and store food. Since many people cannot afford refrigeration, people tend to buy fresh ingredients from the market and cook them on the same day or they rely on dried and smoked fish and vegetables as forms of traditional storage of food.
Foods like dairy, butter and cheese, have almost no place at the table, due to scarcity.
A balanced meal has foods from at least 3 or 4 food groups below:
- Vegetables and fruits
- Whole grain products
- Milk or other dairy alternatives
- Meat and other alternatives like traditional chicken which is widely preferred in Africa because of its nutrients.
- Healthy fats like: Oils- (olive, canola, sunflower), nuts, seeds, avocado, oily fish such as salmon, tilapia ‘omena’, and ‘mbutaa’
- Vegetables include: Eggplant, carrots, broccoli, leafy greens such as kales, celery, spinach.
- Fruits include: Guava, oranges, mango, banana, papaya, pineapple, apples, melon, berries.
- Whole grains include: Oats, millet, brown rice, maize and whole wheat.
- Legumes include: Lentils, chickpeas and cowpeas.
- Nuts and seeds include: Almonds, walnuts, peanuts, flax seeds and cashews.
A very large body of evidence now exists that suggests diet is as important to mental health as it is to physical health. A healthy diet is protective and an unhealthy diet is a risk factor for the brain diseases of depression and anxiety. What one eats affects how the immune system works, how genes work and how the body responds to stress. Time to thank Grandma for her good cooking!