Healthy eating, West African style
Eating well is a crucial part of a healthy lifestyle. Recent efforts by the United Kingdom Government have focused on raising awareness of diet-related risks among West African families through their Change4Life campaign. If you enjoy West African cuisine, here are some tips to help you cook nutritious traditional foods for your family.
Traditional West African meals usually have a large helping of carbohydrate such as yam, rice or plantain. Starchy carbohydrate foods are generally good for you; however, how you cook them can make them less healthy. If you cook the rice in lots of palm oil, it becomes higher in unhealthy saturated fats, and if you fry the plantain, then its calorie count rises. Soup or stew which often accompanies the starchy food may also be high in fat, and it is the saturated fat from palm oil that needs particular attention.
Does this mean that you should stop eating these foods? I suggest not. But do make an effort to understand how unhealthy ingredients make their way into your cooked dishes, and be aware of how much you eat. That way, you can enjoy the same traditional foods with a clearer conscience.
Cook well to eat well
One of the beauties of home cooking is that it often doesn’t involve measuring ingredients. So, you may pour palm oil straight from the bottle. Or you might use coconut cream. But this does no favours to your health — like palm oil, coconut cream is rich in unhealthy saturated fats.
The classic red colour of palm oil is quite appetising, and if you’re used to using a certain amount, it can be tough to change. Start by simply measuring what you use now; even if you find you are using six tablespoons of palm oil when you cook, at least you will know how much you have added. Knowing your starting point, you can cut down gradually. Try adding some tomato puree to provide the vibrant red colour, while reducing the amount of palm oil that you need (see recipe for fish and okra soup).
The other ingredient to keep an eye on is salt. Too much salt can increase your risk of high blood pressure, which tends to be more common in people of African and African-Caribbean origin. Try measuring the amount of salt you use in cooking and choose fewer salty ingredients like ground smoked shrimp and other smoked fish.
Avoid oily and creamy salad dressings — try fresh lemon juice and herbs instead. Photo: Nazma Lakhani
Limit the number of fried snacks that your family consumes — save foods like plantain chips, chin chin and puff puff for special occasions. Instead, try rice cakes, fresh, canned or dried fruit, char-grilled corn on the cob, or grilled plantain as a tasty snack. Choose fruit canned in water or natural juice rather than in sugar-rich syrup.
Watch out for hidden fat. Trimming fat off meat is a good thing, but don’t assume that if you can’t see those white fatty layers, there is none there! Buy the leanest meat you can and peel the skin off chicken. Chicken breast meat is lower in fat than thighs or legs so go easy on the drumsticks.
Throw extra vegetables into stews and soups so that you get more nutrients. Leafy vegetables work well in soups. Get into the habit of serving a side salad with meals (choose a low fat dressing like lime juice with black pepper).
And for all the family, being physically active is another really important aspect of a healthy lifestyle. Even kicking a football in the garden or walking round the block regularly helps you burn calories and stay healthy.