By Reginald Onabu
Culture separates, yet connects, the world. People are either pulled together or else separated by their cultures. The impact of culture is widespread and diverse. Culture, as defined by Livescience.com, is the characteristics and knowledge of a particular group of people, encompassing language, religion, cuisine, social habits, music and arts.
Food is definitely an important ingredient of culture. Many times, what people eat, how they prepare what they eat and sometimes who can eat what, all depend on the prevalent culture. Indeed, people may connect to their cultural or ethnic groups through similar food patterns.
Naturally, the impact of culture on nutrition is high. In some instances, culture can inhibit the progression of healthy nutrition. For example, some cultures believe that if a child is given eggs to eat, the child will grow up to become a thief. Other cultures forbid their clansmen from eating a particular type of food, as this will offend the ancestors. There are places in this country where people don’t eat chicken and others forbid beef.
Certain food taboos and other cultural rites prohibit children from eating meat or eating coconuts. The belief is that these food sources will make them unintelligent. These cultural constraints and food biases may result in malnutrition and other nutrition-related ailments, including protein deficiency.
Protein deficiency, a type of malnutrition, is the lack of protein nutrients in the body, and it poses a significant problem in Nigeria. Protein is widely regarded as an essential building block of life. It is a macro-nutrient found in literally every cell of the body. Macronutrients are foods that the body needs in large amounts. Protein is an important ingredient used to build, maintain and repair body tissues and muscles.
Recently, at a webinar titled: ‘Nigeria’s food culture and the challenge of protein deficiency’, nutritionists and public health experts explored the nexus between the food culture in Nigeria and the protein deficiency situation.
The webinar was organised by Protein Challenge, which is the tag for the Nigeria Protein Deficiency Awareness Campaign. Protein Challenge is a protein-pull media campaign supported by the United States Soybean Export Council (USSEC) and other partners in the country. It seeks, among other things, to create awareness about the prevalence, status and impact of protein deficiency in Nigeria.
The keynote speaker at the webinar, Dr Omadeli Boyo, a medical director and public health expert stated: “We need to sensitise our communities on the importance of protein consumption, taking into cognisance the knowledge, attitude and practices of the various ethnic groups.” He added that there is an urgent need to ensure that healthy food is made affordable and available to all Nigerians, to alleviate protein deficiency.
He remarked that most Nigerian families can hardly afford foods with high nutritional value, compelling them to feed mostly on starchy foods which are very high in carbohydrates. They are also often cheaper.
The truth is that notwithstanding the situation in Nigeria, there are solutions to the issues of food bias, food insecurity and malnutrition in the country.
Creating awareness of malnutrition and protein deficiency is the obvious first step. People need to be aware that eating a daily diet of only starchy foods or processed foods is unhealthy. As the Chinese proverb says, “whatever was the father of a disease, a poor diet was the mother.”
As Dr Boyo noted, sensitisation and education on the benefits of protein will play a key role in communities embracing healthy food cultures. Setting up policies to encourage diverse ethnic groups to eat fruits, and protein-rich foods will certainly help in dispelling certain food myths. Culture is learned, it can also be unlearned, although the process would have to be gradual.
Also speaking at the webinar, Ezekiel Ibrahim, President, Poultry Association of Nigeria (PAN), noted that agriculture is the cornerstone to proper nutrition, so the country must pay closer and more serious attention to it.
He revealed that some of the challenges poultry farmers face is both cultural and economic. These include limited access to quality seeds, trial and error farm method, poor funding of agricultural research institutes, weak value chain and the dearth of reliable data and statistics for planning purposes.
The issue is clear. We must change how we do things to change the narrative around malnutrition and protein deficiency in the country. All key stakeholders in the agricultural, health, food and nutrition space must advise the government on the need to ensure adequate food security for all people across the board.
Truly, it is only through embracing a healthy food culture that Nigeria, with its large and quickly expanding urban population, can begin to experience rapid changes in food habits. With proper dissemination of information, sensitisation and education, Nigerians will begin to actively seek and adopt a protein-rich diet. This will be a desirable cultural shift.
Besides, as people become more conscious of the need for a healthy lifestyle, they can explore the rich repository of unique local nutrient-rich foods. The government and indeed every relevant stakeholder must join hands to ensure that nutrient-rich foods are not only available but also affordable.