Rural dwellers may envy the pace and excitement in the city, but urban life undoubtedly takes its toll on your health. Urbanites have more exposure to pollutants, greater risks of being involved in accidents and violence and are more likely to experience stress-related health problems. Urban dwellers get less exercise and consume more tobacco and alcohol than rural people and although urban people tend to eat more, the quality of food consumed is often lower than that of rural families.
Zimbabwe has seen a rapid change from traditional staple foods of millet and sorghum to refined maize, wheat and white rice. This is part of a global trend where the status of traditional foods declines in response to media promoting convenience foods crammed with tantalizing flavourings, colouring, preservatives, sugar and salt while containing few nutrients. In the world today there are more over-weight and obese people than under-nourished people. Researchers have found direct correlations between consumption of processed, convenience foods and the rise in diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and certain cancers. Lack of fibre due to eating excess refined carbohydrates, refined cooking oil, sugar and salt are the main culprits. Scientists estimate that drinking just one sugary fizzy cool drink per day can increase a person’s risk of diabetes by 22% compared to people who do not drink these sodas.
Such diet-related health problems were rare in pre-colonial Zimbabwe but today they are mushrooming, particularly in urban areas. A study of Zimbabwean children by the Food and Nutrition Council in 2011 found that 3.1% of under-five year-olds were overweight while in 2012 the Zimbabwe Diabetes Association estimated that over half of Zimbabweans suffer from diabetes, most without even realising it.
So what is so great about traditional food? Nutritionists tell us that the secret to a healthy diet is balance, variety and plenty of fibre. The traditional Zimbabwean diet provides us with all of these ingredients. By eating more millet, sorghum, brown rice and a wider range of different fruits, vegetables and legumes, Zimbabweans can obtain 80% more dietary fibre, vitamins and minerals than are currently consumed in the average refined urban diet.
Why have peoples’ diets changed? It is not just lack of knowledge and status that causes people to switch to a fast-food diet. Part of the problem lies in the fact that urban people have less time to cook and source nutritious ingredients so they opt for the food which is readily available in shops. The good news is that trends may be changing. Several companies are marketing nutritious local foods. Packs of traditional grains and legumes can be seen on supermarket shelves alongside dried traditional vegetables, wild fruit and condiments such as baobab powder which can be used to increase the nutrient content of food. Healthy drinks such as mahewu and maas can be bought as alternatives to fizzy drinks.
It will take time for these foods to catch on and for their prices to come down but it is exciting to see that Zimbabweans are slowly rediscovering a pride in healthy traditional food.