Ngozi Nnam is a a Professor of Public Health and Nutrition and former president of the Nutrition Society of Nigeria (NSN). In this interview with VANESSA OKWARA, she highlights the strategies of using nutrition to achieve overall wellness, how the larger population, especially the less privileged could use balanced diet to meet their nutritional needs, the consumption of nutritious food in tackling malnutrition, among others
What motivated you to study so much about nutrition?
My area of interest is in children. What motivated me mostly is that when I go round communities, I see children malnourished and not looking healthy. When you look at their faces, it’s like they robbed a lot of Vaseline. That is a sign of malnutrition. That is what motivated me to study nutrition to see if I can lend a hand in addressing this malnutrition issue particularly among children who are the greater tomorrow.
What constitutes a balanced meal?
One of the basic things in achieving adequate diet is to have variety. A lot of families eat food with no variety. Some eat different types of carbohydrates all through the day without balancing it with other food groups.
The primary thing that will make families to have a balanced meal is for them to diversify what they are eating. They should have varieties in a single meal. For example, it is not a good eating habit for you to just eat yam and oil like they do in villages. When you cook that yam, prepare some vegetables which can be easily gotten. You can also add oil bean ‘ugbaka’, onions or fish if you are cooking it as porridge yam. That way you have introduced variety into the meal. That way you have a better opportunity of meeting the nutrient requirement your family needs.
Rule of thumb for planning adequate balanced meal is to use the food guide pyramid. It is nothing other than a pyramid trying to group food into their different classes.
We have the staple starchy group: tubers and cereals like rice, yam, cassava; and then maize and sorghum are the cereals. They are at the base of the pyramid. Immediately after the tubers, you have the fruits and vegetables.. Then after fruits and vegetables, you have all the foods that are rich in proteins like all the beans family, milk and dairy products. After the protein, you have the oil and fat food group.
The beauty of the food pyramid is that it shows the quantity of each food. Like when we say you should have a variety of food in a single meal, quantity is also important. You have more of the tubers and staple food because the provision of that pyramid shows the proportion of that food to others. That is one guide to ensuring adequate diet for families. So, most families can survive on this guide and most of the food is relatively cheap and once you diversify and include as many food items as possible in a single meal. The guide is that you pick at least one from each group and not having all the food from the same group.
With the looming food crisis in the country, how should families cope with the economic hardship and still have balanced nutrition?
Families need to find a way to adjust. Like this issue of tomatoes, there are substitutes like vegetables. In Nuskka, you can get a big bunch of green leaves for N70. It’s not a must that you cook your rice with tomatoes. You can also use melon to do an interesting soup for your rice and you can also use palm fruits in making Banga stew. So, in time of food crisis, we just have to adjust.
There are other substitutes that are cheaper and nutritious. I know Banga stew with scent leaves (‘Nchanwu’), is a very nutritious meal because ‘Nchanwu’ has a lot of phyto chemicals.
Phyto chemicals are things that help the body to function very well. If we can really go back to them, it will help families a lot in nutrition. When situation becomes like this, it is important to prioritise because food is the basic foundation. You can prioritise and get the essentials to ensure that the family is not malnourished. No matter how meager the income is most of it should be put in feeding the family well on nutritious food.
What is the basic cause of malnutrition?
The malnutrition problem is not because there is no food, but it is mainly because people don’t know what to eat. That is the major problem because the market woman will sell off all her vegetables in the market and then use the money to go and buy expensive food items in the market that is more of junk. There are a lot of interesting nutrients in green vegetables that can really make the family grow well and nourished. So, we need to educate the populace on how to eat nutritious foods that are cheap as well as nutritious.
What is being done to make Nigerians understand the importance of proper nutrition?
The major problem of nutrition in Nigeria is poor awareness. When I was the President of the NSN, we intermittently ran workshops and do seminars. We also had our annual conferences.
We partnered with other agencies to provide awareness on nutrition including educating the populace on what they were supposed to eat.
Our primary objective then was to create awareness, more of advocacy on nutrition, what people should eat and how they were to eat it.
Similarly, we used to have town hall meetings where we met with communities and created awareness about nutrition on how to achieve adequate diet particularly for women and children.
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