In search of ‘development’, Kenya is among those poor countries undergoing a ‘nutrition transition’; with a shift from traditional diets to less healthy ‘western diets’.
To compound matters, we still have a significant segment of the population that does not even get enough food, a quarter of our children remain stunted.
For those who do get enough food, traditional diets are said to be low in salt, saturated fats and the foods have low glycaemic indexes, while the western diet is characterised by processed foods, are high in salt, simple sugars and fat.
Another way of thinking about traditional foods and western foods, is that the latter often come with a label, whereas the local food is sold ‘as it is’.
Think of chewing a piece of sugar cane or eating roasted maize versus eating a cupcake or a pizza as the difference between the two diets.
In one you are required to chew the food vigorously, eating being the primary activity. In the other, the food more or less melts in your mouth and eating is a secondary activity.
Rarely will you chew sugarcane while watching TV but it is quite reasonable to sit and watch TV while eating pizza.
It has been suggested that the pursuit of economic growth is one of the factors that lead development of chronic diseases such as obesity, hypertension and other heart diseases, cancer and diabetes.
The problem we have is that it is in the interest of most of governments to encourage the production and sale of processed foods compared to selling possibly healthier non-processed natural foods.
Government can only exist if it is able to tax the population. The taxes collected are supposed to be used to manage the economy to improve the lives of all citizens.
The major expenses that government has are providing infrastructure, education, health and security. In addition government is supposed to achieve greater equality in terms of wealth and health so that individuals may become better-off, as the country as a whole grows healthier and richer. Achieving these goals are underpinned by the principles of taxation which are; the taxation system should be efficient; easy to understand; equitable and; those who benefit from taxes should also pay (taxes).
Following that line of thinking, a bus that spews diesel waste into the urban air should be made to pay for the respiratory problems the smoke cause pedestrians.
Across the world, developing countries included, chronic non-communicable diseases are already the major causes of ill health. The diet we consume daily, which accumulates into a lifestyle over the years is responsible for a major part of the chronic disease epidemic we face. Yet when a ‘mama mboga’ or a youth opens a stall to start selling vegetables or fruits he or she is still likely to face difficulties in progressing their business.
On the other hand a multinational food chain opens a restaurant selling processed food of the kind that has caused all kinds of problems in developed countries, everyone from the media to the established business community hails it as a sign of ‘development’.
The government too is happy because this creates obvious and easy tax collection compared to chasing the single hawker ten times. The thinking seems to be ‘let us develop first then we will sort out these other problems of health later’. After all these things require money.
The problem with that argument is that we all know that prevention is better than waiting for the disease and then paying for cure. Further more most chronic conditions have no cure. The solution to the problem is to closely tie in economic development to overall human development to ensure that people get wealthier but also have the good health to enjoy that wealth. Thinking carefully about how to promote healthy lifestyles through healthy diets is one way.
Consider milk, taken in its raw form, it can be very dangerous, but processing it makes it safe but still healthy source of nutrients.
Not much is added to it except heat. But in natural food, salt, sugar and fat is added in significant quantities then there is trouble ahead. Studies done in the UK and Australia found that table salt, sauces and spreads, processed meats and bread were the major sources of sodium. High salt intake can lead to development of high blood pressure.
Luckily apart from salt and bread, almost all these foods are taxed. For an individual shopping for healthy food, checking whether VAT applies to the price is an easy way to tell if the food is processed or not.
But at a national level we need to think how we get the 46 percent of stunted children in West Pokot and Kitui counties healthy, because the solution is not simply to make them richer and afford vatable food.