Here’s a cautionary tale and a clear health warning – from faraway Uganda. North Americans take note. According to a study reported in The New Vision of Kampala, physicians there appear to be as concerned about the heart health of Ugandans as our own doctors are about us in the Western world.
Researchers from the Mbale School of Hygiene say Uganda’s growing urban population now bears the brunt of increasing rates of chronic illnesses such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes as they follow a shift away from Uganda’s traditional and unprocessed diet. Foods like luwombo (stuffed banana leaves), dodo (wild greens), cassava (yam-like tubers), potatoes, fish, atapa (millet bread) and malewa (bamboo shoots) are consumed less frequently today than the more Western diet of high salt, high-sugar and high fat processed foods. Some of the most popular big city foods now include fried potato chips, burgers, hot dogs, pickles, pizzas, salty pretzels, sausages, and red meats with high levels of saturated fat. Sound familiar?
Mbale School of Hygiene nutritionists are urging a return to a more traditional and much healthier Uganda diet of brown rice, legumes, whole grain barley or millet, fruits, fresh greens like mustard greens, sweet potato leaves and butternut leaves.
For thousands of years here, nomadic tribes in the dry lowlands raised cattle, goats or sheep, which served as part of the tribes’ food source. Highland crops that were less affected by extreme weather (wheat, barley, millet, sorghum and tubers like yams) slowly became important staples of the Ugandan diet.
The main meal of the day was lunch, traditionally a mixture of vegetables, fruits, legumes, and sometimes meat, which was and remains very expensive. This mixture, called stew, soup or sauce depending on the region, was served over a porridge or mash made from a root vegetable like cassava or a grain such as rice, corn, millet, or teff. In some regions, groundnut paste (peanut butter) was the main ingredient for a high-protein stew.
In Uganda’s growing cities as in many big cities throughout Africa, however, the typical modern diet is now increasingly dependent on meat, as well as on empty calories from pre-packaged or processed foods similar to those found in our own cities.
Dr. Sam Wamimbi, a nutritionist at Bududa Hospital in Mbale, advises that good habits and choices like physical exercise, proper nutrition programmes in schools combined with “good human relationship skills and regular medical check-ups will help Ugandans rediscover good standards of health.”
The new dietary guidelines proposed in The New Vision sound remarkably similar to what we know is heart-healthy advice for all of us as well:
- eat a variety of foods like fruits, vegetables, yogurt, legumes, fish, whole grain breads and cereals
- maintain ideal weight
- improve eating habits — prepare smaller portions and eat slowly
- avoid saturated fats and cholesterol - instead choose fish, poultry, legumes, and (rarely) lean red meats ; limit butter and high-fat cream, hydrogenated margarines and coconut oils.
- eat foods with adequate starch and fibre like whole grain breads, cereals, fruits, vegetables, beans and nuts
- avoid too much sugar – white sugar, brown sugar, raw sugar, honey and syrups; eat less candy, ice creams, cake, soft drinks and cookies
- avoid salty foods like potato chips and salted nuts; enjoy the unsalted true flavours of foods
Source: Frederick Womakuyu, Richard Wetaya, The New Vision, Kampala, Uganda
* Read this Medpedia article on Cardiovascular Disease in the Developing World.
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