By Dr. Catherine N. Kunyanga
Many at times, consumers do not think about what they are eating. In the African set-up, most diets tend to be driven by a myriad of factors namely; hunger, appetite, cultural and social meaning of food, habit or custom, emotional comfort, convenience and advertising, nutritional value, social interactions and accessibility. Advertising continues to play an important role in influencing consumption of foods. Nutrition information is rarely displayed on the labels of most food products; consumers therefore purchase and consume these foods regardless of their cost without being oblivious of the possibility of them being unwholesome or of lower nutritional and health quality than indicated.
The famous quote by Hippocrates “Let food be thy medicine” still guides most of the underlying principles of nutrition. It is a proven fact that plant foods i.e. cereals, legumes and vegetables have helped to fulfill the ageless need to sustain body and soul. These foods play an important role in the traditional diets of many developing countries; they are low in fat, excellent sources of proteins, carbohydrates, dietary fibre and a variety of micronutrients.
Increased consumption of these foods has been widely promoted, not only do they supply macro and micronutrients but they also provide many bioactive phytochemicals which are strongly associated with health maintenance and prevention of chronic diseases.
Consumers, especially those from the middle and upper socio-economic classes have become increasingly aware of health benefits derived from consumption of health promoting specialized foods found in the market. There is also increasing willingness to pay for additional safety of food products, and increasing attention toward the overall safety of consumption patterns, given a more widespread knowledge of the relation between food consumption patterns and health status.
Is there a biblical perspective on what we eat?
My all favourite biblical quote “Daniel then said to the guard whom the chief official had appointed over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, “Please test your servants for ten days: Give us nothing but vegetables or pulses to eat and water to drink. Then compare our appearance with that of the young men who eat the royal food, King’s meat, and treat your servants in accordance with what you see.” 15…..At the end of the ten days they looked healthier and better nourished than any of the young men who ate the royal food.”Daniel 1:11-13 (NIV)
This proves that plant foods can help promote nutrition and health of many populations in Africa and globally with positive outcomes. Many consumers may find it strange to think about eating as a choice, but it is.
Choosing to live well is choosing to eat well. Whole foods and nutritionally adequate diets such as a variety of vegetables and fruits as part of a mainly plant-based diet can help one avoid four of the top ten leading causes of premature death which are: heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes.
A healthy diet can help one look better and feel younger. In addition to providing several nutrients for healthy balanced diets, plant based foods exert a health-protective effect attributed mainly to antioxidants and dietary fiber. These foods have potential as a remedy to counter food insecurity since most are well adapted to the local environment enabling them to resist pests, drought and diseases.
Health Benefits of Plant Foods
A plant-based diet with high intake of fruits, vegetables and whole grains may reduce the risk of oxidative stress-related diseases. Consumption of a diversity of cereals, legumes, oil seeds and vegetable provides a combined additive or synergistic effect crucial to health benefits derived from the diet.
Most bioactive food constituents are derived from plants; those so derived are collectively called phytochemicals. Phytochemicals are bioactive substances of plants that have been associated in the protection of human health against chronic degenerative diseases. The large majorities of these phytochemicals are redox active molecules and therefore defined as antioxidants.
Antioxidants can eliminate free radicals and other reactive oxygen and nitrogen species that contribute to most chronic diseases. It is hypothesized that antioxidants originating from foods may work as antioxidants in their own right in vivo, as well as bring about beneficial health effects through other mechanisms, including acting as inducers of mechanisms related to antioxidant defense, longevity, cell maintenance and DNA repair. Dietary diversification is the most important factor in ensuring intake of adequate micronutrients and phytochemicals.
What guides us to make informed choices?
Many efforts to eradicate hunger and poverty in Africa have focused on increasing agricultural productivity and diversity in the foods we eat. To maintain good nutrition and health, we need to eat a variety and diversity of foods.
And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food; and Genesis 9:3
“Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything.”
The search for novel high quality but cheap sources of protein and energy has continued to be a major concern in many parts of Africa. Investigations on economically viable indigenous food ingredients as alternative strategies to curb under nutrition and food insecurity are of utmost importance to broaden the essential nutrient sources for human nutrition. Adaptation to adverse environmental conditions, resistance to pests, cultural acceptability and sufficient nutritional qualities are the key advantages of these indigenous foods.
In addition, plants possess macronutrients, amino acids, lipids and minerals, which are natural components of many cereals, legumes, oil seeds, and vegetables and they play an important role in maintaining their quality and determining nutritive value in human diet.
Policy interventions and nutrition education should focus on linking agriculture to positive nutrition and health outcomes. Hence, in the efforts to address food and nutrition security it is pertinent to take into consideration the role of plant foods in diseases and health.
Climate smart agriculture should therefore, incorporate production of nutrition sensitive crops for positive nutrition and health outcomes among various populations in Africa.
Why worry about what you eat?
Globally, under nutrition and over nutrition are key concerns of many nutritionists. These two scenarios lead to risk of being underweight or overweight which can be measured. The risks of being overweight and physically inactive are numerous depending on individuals. The biblical perspective also cautions against overeating for instance “Proverbs 23:20-21: Be not among drunkards or among gluttonous eaters of meat, for the drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty, and slumber will clothe them with rags.”
If you are overweight (BMI over 25) and physically inactive) you may develop: Cardiovascular (heart and blood circulation) disease; Gall bladder disease; High blood pressure (hypertension); Diabetes; Osteoarthritis; and Certain types of cancer, such as Colon and Breast Cancer. The short-term conditions related to poor diet include fatigue, bad moods, depression and stress.
If you are underweight (BMI less than 20), you may be malnourished and develop: Compromised immune function, Respiratory disease, Digestive disease; Cancer; Osteoporosis, and Increased risk of falls and fractures.
The choice is yours!
A plant based diet will contain macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein and lipids), micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) as well as dietary fibre. Dietary fibre has been showed to have benefits that include combating constipation and improvement of controls in the body like your heart health as well as protection against cancer.
The most undisputed advantage of insoluble fibre is its ability to soften and expand stool volume, speeding up faecal transit and elimination. Soluble fibre from legumes, barley, oats, some fruit and vegetables can help regulate blood sugar swings and by lowering serum cholesterol, protect against heart disease.
Excess blood fats are possibly reduced by soluble fibres such as pectin, bean and oat gums, and the types in legumes (lentils, chickpeas, navy, pinto or kidney beans). Your heart health may improve by diets rich in fibre, through its cholesterol lowering effects. Fibres also have possible anti-cancer effects since in the bowel, bacteria converts fibre into short chain fatty acids, which provide energy for the body and may help protect against cancer.
Many at times we neglect our bodies by overeating and lack of exercise. Physical exercise is also important in nutrition and health. 1 Timothy 4:8 says that “For bodily exercise profiteth little: but godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come”.
Let moderation in everything guide you to a healthy living. “Let your moderation be known unto all men. The Lord is at hand. Philippians 4:5”