Promote indigenous foods to boost health

Thursday, September 28th, 2023 05:30 | By
Colorful fruits and vegetables colorfully arranged at a local fruit and vegetable market in Nairobi, Kenya.
Colorful fruits and vegetables colorfully arranged at a local fruit and vegetable market in Nairobi, Kenya. PHOTO/iStock

As Kenya moves towards primary health care, which includes prioritising disease prevention over treatment, the message that experts are sending — urging Kenyans to eat healthy traditional foods — ought to be amplified.

Many of the non-communicable diseases that have become prevalent now were not as common in the past, and this has partly been attributed to the fact that fewer Kenyans are including indigenous foods in their diets. For instance, there has been an increase, over the years, in the consumption of bread and wheat products at the expense of traditional foods like sweet potatoes. Over time, this leads to weight gain, which is made worse by the sedentary lifestyles many urban dwellers have adopted.

Traditional foods, especially when consumed from an early age, have been scientifically proven to increase disease resilience and improve nutritional outcomes compared to modern processed foods.  However, as lifestyles and incomes improve, there has been a trend, particularly among middle class families, to abandon such foods in favour of processed ones. The upshot has been a decrease in immunity levels among children and failure to attain optimum weight and height.

Traditional foods have been shown to reduce risk to some forms of cancer, improve overall wellbeing and prevent some common ailments by building immunity. Clearly, therefore, the push for increased consumption of traditional foods is not merely driven by sentiment but backed up by science.

Part of the problem confronting families today is over reliance on staples like maize, wheat and rice to meet the demand for carbohydrates. Because Kenya is not producing enough of these grains, the country is spending a pretty penny importing them when farmers can grow healthier alternatives locally, which can have the double impact of improving their livelihoods while also helping consumers to eat healthier, hence spend less on medication.

The government should, therefore, seek ways to give farmers more incentives to grow crops like millet, sorghum, arrowroots and cassava and also encourage their consumption at all age groups. This is an idea worth exploring and there is need for health and agriculture experts to seek ways of unlocking its benefits.

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