How to Achieve Optimal Health with the Traditional African Diet & A 5-Day Dinner Meal Plan to Download
A few years ago, I sat in my doctor’s office listening to his interpretation of my blood tests. I was pre-diabetic, he explained, with a very high probability of of developing Type II diabetes in the future. He explained that my blood tests had revealed that I had developed Impaired Glucose Tolerance (IGT), usually a pre-cursor to diabetes.
I was all too familiar with diabetes from a young age. I grew up watching loved ones live with the illness and die from its complications. For many years prior, there was a part of me that believed I had drawn the short straw genetically and so I was destined to “catch” diabetes at some point in the future.
My belief was predicated on my ethnicity, as after-all, being black meant my probability of contracting a lifestyle disease such as diabetes or heart disease was much higher than the average. The statistics say approximately 45% of African American men and women are clinically obese, and 42% of those over 20 have high blood pressure. cancer, or cardiovascular disease.
But is this really the case? Does being African pre-dispose one to certain illnesses? Contrary to the long-held belief that the information contained in our genes is fixed and unchangeable, there is now a growing body of evidence that suggests that external factors have the potential to activate or amplify our genes.
An example is the recent discovery by Dr Frank Hu of the relationship between the consumption of sugary drinks on certain genes, in his research on diabetes and pregnancy, where the evidence suggests that excessive consumption of sugary beverages can activate the obesity gene. Armed with this information, I am convinced that we Africans can thrive if we look to the traditional diet of our forefathers, the diet that they ate for thousands of years, which kept them healthy and strong.
The Traditional African Diet
The traditional African cuisine was transported from Africa to the New World through the transatlantic slave trade and was adopted and adapted into the local cuisines of places like Brazil, Jamaica, Cuba, Dominican Republic and so on. The defining characteristics of the traditional African cuisine are the rich spices, and healthy and whole ingredients used.
And although today, many African cuisines retain some of the characteristics of the traditional African diet (some more than others), traditional African cuisine is not to be confused with modern African cuisine which is characterised by starchy and meat-heavy recipes, or with American Soul food which features fried foods and meats quite distinctly.
The traditional African diet consists largely of the foods our centuries-old ancestors in Africa ate and by returning to this traditional diet, we can feed our bodies with the food we need to thrive and experience optimal health and well-being.
What’s Wrong with Our Diet Today?
How did our ancient forefathers who lived in the plains of Africa hundreds of years ago maintain a healthy weight without knowing much about calories or macronutrients? The answer to that question speaks to the heart of what is wrong with our diet today.
The sad by-product of our ever-increasing busy lives is that most of us end up eating way too many processed foods. By processed foods, I don’t mean foods that have been mechanically altered for preservation reasons. For example, fresh fish that has been smoked dry to preserve it for longer is not what I refer to as processed food. Processed food is food that has been chemically altered. To illustrate, let’s look at the process of refining a grain of wheat. A wheat grain is composed of three parts; Bran, Germ and Endosperm.
The bran is the hard outer skin of the kernel, and it’s role is to protects the germ and the endosperm. It contains vitamins, and trace minerals, and one of the most remarkable properties of wheat bran is that it is very rich in fibre and therefore, very beneficial to facilitating digestion.
The germ is the embryo, the part of the seed that has the ability and potential to grow into a new plant. This is the live-wire of the wheat seed and for this reason, the wheat germ is the most vitamin and mineral-rich part of the wheat seed.
The endosperm is the part of the seed that is the food supply for the wheat germ, while the germ is in the process of germinating or sprouting. It is the largest part of the kernel and contains mainly starchy carbohydrates, some protein and small amounts of vitamins and minerals. Compared to the bran and the germ, the endosperm contains the least amount of vitamins and minerals.
During the process of refinement, the bran and the germ are removed, leaving the endosperm which is then milled into refined wheat flour. Without the bran and germ, about 25% of a grain’s protein is lost, along with vast amounts of minerals and vitamins. Refined wheat flour made from processed grains of wheat forms the base of a lot of food items; pizzas, white bread, fast foods, and pastries.
For some of us, processed foods in addition to food items made with refined wheat flour, constitute our entire diet. The scary truth is that these foods are filled with sometimes, things that most of us cannot pronounce, and things that we should not be eating so much of; excessive salt, sugar, bad fats, preservatives.
What Happens When We Eat Processed Food?
When we consume refined wheat, as in the example above, our body’s enzymes break down the carbohydrate into glucose, which is released into the bloodstream.
Without the fibre from the bran which has been removed during refinement, the breakdown of the carbohydrate into glucose happens very rapidly, leading to a temporary spike in blood sugar. To mop away the excess sugar in the bloodstream, the body secretes the hormone insulin. Insulin is a fat-storing hormone, and as the insulin mops up the excess sugar and reduces the blood sugar, it triggers a feeling of starvation. Turning to processed foods to satisfy this hungry feeling only repeats the cycle, leading ultimately to obesity, insulin resistance and leptin dysfunction, which leads to even more extreme obesity and disease.
Research now shows that some foods, particularly those dense in fat, sugar, salt and are visually appealing have the ability to affect our brains in the same way that cocaine or heroine does. If you have ever felt too full to indulge in dessert after a big meal, only to suddenly be able to “make room” for the visually-stimulating, calorie-ridden piece of dessert, then you are familiar with this phenomenon.
What has just happened is that your brains’ reward centre has been activated so powerfully, that your brains’ protective mechanism which prevents you from overeating has been shut down. These are the same reward centres that are activated by cocaine or heroine. By stimulating the brain’s reward centre in the same way that cocaine does, consuming these foods ultimately lead to cravings and overindulgence.
The large food companies are all too aware of the addictive nature of sugar, salt and fat. In a world where the search for corporate profits is fierce, food processing companies know that in order to gain and keep consumers, food has to taste very good, so good that we lose our ability, albeit temporarily, to regulate our intake of the food. The taste-good factor is usually achieved with added sugar and/or salt, and so a diet of processed food will result in an overconsumption of excess sugar in no time.
What Does a Diet Inspired by a Traditional African Diet Include?
The traditional African diet isn’t a diet per se. Rather, it is a way of eating that advocates for wholesome rather than processed food. The human body requires lots of different nutrients for its proper functioning, including Omega 3 fats, vitamins, minerals, protein, carbohydrates and fibre, and most of these nutrients are only found in whole, and real foods. The Oldways African Heritage Diet Food pyramid illustrates, a diet based on whole and fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains, herbs and spices, as the bases for the Traditional African diet.
How to Incorporate the Traditional African Diet as part of a Healthy Eating Strategy
Celebrate the Vegetable Rather than the Meat: Steamed, sautéed, roasted, grilled or raw, enjoy veggies like okra, cabbage, green beans, or eggplant in larger portions than the other parts of your meal. If you’re grabbing seconds, go for the veggies!
Replace Salt/Sugar with Herbs and Spices: African cuisine is prolific in its use of herbs and spices. Add a depth of flavour to meals with the bountiful herbs used in African cooking.
Think Real Food instead of Processed: Think carrot sticks in an eggplant dip instead of reaching for a bag of crisps. Replace French fries with roasted sweet potatoes. For seconds or thirds, load up on vegetables for a dose of whole and real foods.
Eat with Loved Ones: Finally, enjoy meals with family. There’s no better way to connect with family and reinforce shared values.
Learn to Cook and Plan Meals Ahead: I started planning my meals ahead and learned to cook wholesome and nutritious meals. Slowly, I started re-creating healthier versions of most of the unhealthy foods I used to enjoy. Sugar-coated cereals gave way to Couscous breakfast squares. My favourite all-english breakfasts morphed into Baked Eggs and Avocado Toast.
If planning a whole week’s meals in advance seems too daunting, start by planning only weekly dinners, until you get the hang of it. To help you get started, click to download your 5-Day Dinner Meal Plan.