Sunday, March 24, 2013
I am currently on a 3-month work experience in Africa. I am in Ghana, a country that is pretty stable politically. There is money from new oil and the long-standing gold mining; however there is also a great deal of extreme poverty. I have the impression that the gap between rich and poor is expanding at a fast pace.
My focus on eating and water intake are completely different here. I need to drink a lot of water to stay hydrated in the heat--temperature is pretty stable at 34 C with a "feels like" temp of 47 C. Maintaining electrolyte balance if I'm out in the heat is critical. The key is SAFE water. I need to double boil and then irradiate the water with UV light if I use my tap water. I am very lucky to have pretty stable access to running water. My students are frequently without water in their residence. If we buy water it needs to be certain sources that are safe.
The first priority with food is also that it is safe. We need to be very cautious what we eat and where it is prepared. We have all had ongoing gastro. Mine was daily for 7 weeks. I was totally dependent on pepto bismal to get through the day. Thankfully I brought probiotics and have a fridge to store them in as that has really helped me stabilize. I can only eat small amounts so my gut won't react. There are often times when I don't eat because I don't have access to safe food--thankfully I came with a supply of nuts, hemp seeds and protein shakes that have been my backup on many occasions. I have lost weight but can only guess at how much since I don't have access to a scale.
The other food challenge is getting nutritious food. For those of us with delicate North American guts lettuce is not safe to eat as bacteria and other microbes can get inside the leaf. People eat remarkably few vegetables here. Fruit needs to have a rind and be soaked in bleach water for 30 minutes prior to pealing. Mangoes, papaya, avocado, and pineapple are staples and the most healthy food we can access. What is for sale either from street vendors or in stores is a massive amount of highly refined white rice, crackers, bread and cookies. Much of it is made with trans fats to survive the heat and long shelf life. Palm oil is also a common ingredient. The locally prepared food is extremely high in carbohydrate and fat. Finding healthy food is extremely challenging. Unfortunately these "worst of the worst" western foods are what many people see as desirable here. The original African diet that was home grown and home cooked was very nutritious. With massive migration to large cities, urbanized poverty, and globalization of the food industry the rates of hypertension, obesity and diabetes are growing rapidly.
I am told that among many Africans being plump is still seen as a sign that you have enough money to buy food, and is therefore desirable. Unfortunately the food that is making many people gain weight is the unhealthy food with all the associated health problems. My African colleagues were fascinated when I told them that in North America, the poorer people tend to gain weight because they can only afford poor quality food, whereas the more wealthy can be thinner as they could afford high quality food and the expensive gym memberships. The status symbol is reversed.
So what does all of this mean for my perspective on nutrition?
I swear that I will kiss my faucets at home for the wonderful unlimited safe drinking water that flows from them.
I am eternally grateful for the incredibly easy access I have to nutritious safe vegetables.
I have no right to grumble about the time it takes to prepare veggies for a salad. It is a luxury!!!
Knowing the ease with which I can access nutritious food, why would I eat empty calories?
I have stable electricity so that my fridge and water pumps work, and I don't have to check my food for ants before I eat. Those too are luxuries!
I can exercise without it being dangerous because of the intense heat.
With all of these advantages there is no excuse for eating poorly at home!