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September 21, 2018

Your 'African food' can also trigger diabetes

FATT Y: Mutura (African sausages) can lead to obesity and gout
FATT Y: Mutura (African sausages) can lead to obesity and gout

A cow eats grass and grain all day, spends all night digesting. A chicken eats more or less the same stuff, mainly during the day, spends most of the night just chilling, though put in the lights and it will continue eating.

These animals are bred by humans to serve them in the form of meat, and other products such as milk and eggs. Critical for the farmer growing these animals is to do the maths, how many kilos of food do I have to feed each animal in return for a kilo of product. The more efficient the animal the better for the farmer.

If you compare a kilo of plant-based food, vegetables in other words, to a kilo of animal-based food, meat in other words; meat has so much more calories for the same quantity.

However, just like with everything else in life, there is a trade-off to eating meat. Most of us are aware of what happens when we eat too much meat; a familiar scene is the middle-aged man who can no longer wear nice shoes but has to wear socks with sandals, a result of gout.

But there are other consequences to eating meat and some of them are worrying especially from a public health perspective. A common question asked by many people is “how can I prevent getting a disease like diabetes?”

The question is difficult to answer in the specifics because the exact cause of adult onset or type two diabetes mellitus is not known. Instead what is known are the risk factors.

In the case of diabetes there are several risk factors including having a first-degree relative with diabetes, increasing age, obesity, being non-Caucasian. If such a person is physically inactive, has high blood pressure, high cholesterol then they have a much higher chance of having diabetes than a person without these risk factors. As you can see a risk factor that increases the chances of increasing your weight also increase the risk of diabetes. And here is where meat comes in as a suspect.

Studies done 30-40 years ago showed that people who are vegetarian in their diet weigh less than those who eat meat. And it didn’t really matter what type of meat, whether white or red meat, the person eating meat had twice the risk of the non-meat eaters. Further diabetes prevalence increased with frequency of meat eaten and the type of meat. Eating a daily average of 50 grams of processed meats such as bacon, hot dogs, sausages or ham were found to be associated with a 50% higher risk of developing diabetes. So eating chicken sausage is not much healthier than eating other types of sausage.

The problem with meat is that we all have pride that meat eating is an African thing and that diabetes is a western thing, a result of a ‘western diet’. Such a diet is often described as having excess amounts of refined grains including bread, sweets, deserts, French fries and of course meat.

The western diet is a fast food diet, eaten on the go. What we sometimes forget is that much of what we call the African diet is really ‘western’. That ugali you eat unless it is milled, wholemeal, is highly processed starch dish; and until recently most of our population was too poor to afford meat; beef, goat, chicken or other, except during some occasion such as a funeral, Christmas or wedding.

So part of the reason we will continue to see more diabetes developing is that we continue to encourage people to eat more beef, chicken and goat as a proportion of their daily diet. Eat a meal heavy in protein and you need to rest afterwards. It is a sign of doing well. Ask any labourer at a construction site if they can work after eating Nyama Choma or chicken fry. The answer is no. Ask someone who regularly exercises if they can eat a meal of meat then go out and jog. The answer will be no.

A diet with a greater proportion of vegetables is the long-term solution to reducing the risk of diabetes. It is in itself healthier, it also allows you to develop healthy habits such as exercising and you weight less. Sadly this is a tough message as we all love our meats.

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