20 October 2010

Kenya: Change in Poor Eating Habits Still Food for Thought

Kenyans are not grazing enough on greens despite having access to a large variety of fresh vegetables.

While diet experts recommend that a healthy adult should eat at least 400g of vegetables per day, Kenyans are putting away a paltry 26g.

As a consequence, a large share of the population is exposing itself to a wide range of disease, as well as putting its performance at risk.

"We are seeing the emergence of nutrition-based diseases simply because of the social and cultural regulations in relation to diets. For example, in some cultures women are told not to eat certain fruits which in contrast are beneficial to them," said Dr Elizabeth Kuria, a senior lecturer, department of food nutrition and dietetics at Kenyatta University.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends 146kg of vegetables per person annually.

But Kenyans consume an average of 114kg per person ever year.

The issue is likely to put the country in the spotlight in four years during a global meeting to evaluate the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Health experts are sending out a concern that unless more focus is put towards ensuring proper nutrition, funding for development goals may be equally useless.

"Low iron supply in diets, for example, means low productivity among the population hence funding in development without improving productivity is useless," said Gladys Mugambi, deputy head of nutrition department at the ministry of Public Health.

Kenya has just played host to the 4th Africa Nutritional Epidemiology Conference, which came to a close on October 8.

The conference discussed food-based strategies to address malnutrition, maternal and child health nutrition, climate change and effects on food security and nutrition.

Among the challenges to sustainable nutrition has been inaccessibility to a reliable food supply system, which has often been caused by spells of drought.

Stakeholders in the health sector have cited inadequate food storage facilities and lack of knowledge on how best to use available foods as having an effect on nutrition.

"Although 30 per cent of the population may lack enough food because of drought intervals, there lies a problem of food wastage in these areas as they lack proper food storage techniques," said Dr Kuria.

Areas with seasonal food supplies are unable to store enough food for dry seasons, thus falling victims of poor diets.

Currently, between 40 and 60 per cent of the local population can get access to proper diets.

However, according to Dr Kuria, this may not be possible due to poor knowledge as well as cultural and social challenges.

Poor diet

In addition, poor cooking methods have resulted into wastage of essential minerals through overcooking and inappropriate procedures that are followed when washing vegetables.

In the urban areas, for example, it is a common for vendor to cut vegetables for the customers, who in turn wash before cooking. This washes away the nutrients.

Although not all dietary related illnesses could be entirely blamed on poor eating habits, to a large extent prevalence of such illnesses that are caused by poor diets and genetics could be reduced.

"Diabetes is becoming an issue of concern and is blamed both on poor lifestyles and genetic composition. However, the extent of this disease that is caused by poor nutrition can be reduced by improved uptake of the right foods," says Prof Mohammed Karama, a principal researcher at Kenya Medical Research Institute.

Similarly, stunted growth among children can be eliminated through exclusive breastfeeding and increased uptake of fruits and vegetables.

While some regions in the country have a variety of vegetables to choose from, others may only have a single type of fruit or vegetable.

Nutritionists advise that one consumes all fruits that are in season and where possible diversify uptake of vegetables with first priority on the dark green vegetables.

Often, many families have no budgets for vegetables as a lot of focus is on the main diets.

On average, fruits retail for between Sh5 and Sh15 in the urban areas, and the same price applies for some categories of vegetables.

The price may be as little as Sh5 in almost all outlets in the rural areas where in addition to retail outlets many families have access to fertile land that can be used for cultivation.

In addition to deaths resulting from dietary related diseases like diabetes, the cost of treatment for the is way beyond the average cost of a single type of fruit or vegetable.

The government through the National School Feeding Programme has sought to ensure that children access a meal every day.

Although the move has been welcome, it has failed to reach some regions, leaving many children exposed to poor diet.

The programme has also not been able to provide a holistic meal consisting of fruits and vegetables as recommended by nutritionists.

Consequently, children attending private schools have had nutritional advantage over their peers in public institutions as they receive a balanced diet.

Exclusive breastfeeding

Generally, health experts have expressed optimism that the nutrition situation is set to improve if the necessary policies are implemented to ensure awareness on the importance of balanced diets as well as knowledge on alternative foods to complement diets.

However, there are basic areas in that still require attention as they constitute a large part of nutrition among children who often have a low immune system as compared to adults.

"There has been a marked improvement as more attention is being given to nutrition. However, a few other areas like breastfeeding need to be looked into," says Prof Karama.

Currently, only 32 per cent of women practice exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months as recommended by the WHO.

Although it boosts the immunity system in infants and helps reduce mortality, the figure is still low.

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