Protein deficiency, the state of the relative or absolute shortage of body proteins or one or more of the essential amino acids, is emerging as a genuine health concern in Nigeria.
To effectively tackle the problem, experts concede that there is an urgent need to explore its true status in Nigeria, examine the possible reasons why it has lingered and then evaluate options for curtailing incidences.
This is precisely what the Protein Challenge Webinar Series 5, themed ‘Protein Deficiency: Bridging The Knowledge Gap’ sought to address. It was a platform to identify strategies to help in alleviating protein deficiency for individuals, families and the nation at large.
The keynoted address was delivered by Professor Henrietta Nkechi Ene-Obong, Nutritionist and Professor of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, University of Calabar. Panelists on the webinar included Dr. Ifeoma Augustina Akeredolu, a member of the Nutrition Society of Nigeria and Chief Lecturer, Department of Nutrition and Dietetics, YabaTech, and Dr. Bimbo Oyedokun, a medical expert and Managing Partner, QuePlus Health Services.
The session was moderated by Mrs Anwuli Ogbonnaya, aka Chef Wulis, healthy food expert and CEO/Founder, PartyParty Kitchen.
Here are the Top 10 takeaways from the webinar:
1. Food is one of the basic needs of life. We all need food to survive. However, the quality of food must be considered. The quality of food is essentially the nutrients in the food. Protein is a nutrient needed by the human body for growth and maintenance. Proteins are essential for good health. Protein food sources are therefore a premium. Many people realise this, that is why they always add protein to their diets.
2. Protein quality depends on three things:
a. The balance of essential amino acids (complete and incomplete protein)
b. Limiting amino acids and
c. Digestibility: the capacity of the protein to be broken down by the enzymes of the intestinal tract
3. Everybody needs protein. People with more physiological requirements, like pregnant and lactating mothers and children, need more proteins in their diets. People have to learn how to plan meals, to optimize the available food sources. Quality Information about foods and their nutrient classes must be gotten from nutrition experts and health practitioners. Variety, they say, is the spice of life. So, people need to develop exciting recipes for different food crops, to continually create variety.
4. Protein deficiency can manifest in different forms; anaemia, micronutrient deficiency, among others. Protein deficiency can lead to other nutrient-related illnesses, like anaemia, beriberi and wasting. Signs and symptoms of protein deficiency include water retention, reddish skin, pale skin, limp hair, fatty liver, etc. Children who have been malnourished are at risk of losing their hair and teeth.
5. Nutrition education is indeed a very important part of resolving malnutrition. Advocacy and proper implementation of nutrition policies must be done in Nigeria to checkmate protein deficiency. Proper funding must be allocated to ministries, NGOs and health centres nationwide. Breaking the language barriers in the nation can bridge the knowledge gap on protein deficiency. More knowledge needs to be imparted to all members of society through different media channels. Proper nutrition education must be conducted in all localities.
6. Changing behavioural communications in society can also lessen the burden of malnutrition. Nutrition should be included in the educational curriculum. Children are very good at sharing with parents what they learn. Improving nutrition education in communities and across the rural areas will go a long way to create awareness about protein deficiency.
7. Empowering health workers in rural communities with appropriate funding and tools will enable them to disseminate nutrition information. Health Care Practitioners in rural areas should also be involved in spreading the gospel of proper nutrition for healthy living. There must be deliberate efforts to create visible impacts against protein deficiency through policies.
8. Preventive measures are more preferable in tackling protein deficiency and malnutrition. It is crucial to increase our protein intake. Soybeans have been used in the eastern parts of Nigeria, like Nsukka, to better improve staple diets. People afflicted with protein deficiency need to speak with health experts, and not be afraid of the financial costs. Protein deficiency is treatable and preventable. If we follow our food-based dietary guidelines, we would make progress in curtailing protein deficiency
9. Protein deficiency lingers for many reasons, but largely because of monotonous diets and poor utilization of available food resources. Poverty and low levels of education in the rural areas have caused protein deficiency to linger in Nigeria. Lack of safe water and proper hygiene are also some of the environmental causative factors of protein deficiency. The upheavals in the country, insecurity and the pandemic have also contributed to making protein deficiency remain a national issue.
10. Protein complementation with plant-based, affordable proteins like soybeans, legumes, will help to reduce the scourge of malnutrition. Other indigenous legumes like the African yam beans, pigeon peas and Bambara are also very rich sources of protein. Cereals have a smaller amount of amino acids (lysine), compared to other leguminous peas and pods. In family meals, it is important to learn to mix carbohydrates with proteins. For example, rice & beans and yam & eggs.
In conclusion, bridging the protein deficiency knowledge gap and providing the capacity to bridge it puts the knowledge into action. Protein deficiency can become a thing of the past when all hands are on deck to address it.