Most individuals of African Caribbean descent are particularly at higher risk of chronic diseases such as stroke, type 2 diabetes and heart disease than individuals from other ethnic backgrounds. Even though there are many factors that contribute to the development of diseases, what we know is that diet can play a significant role in the prevention and management of diseases.
Some individuals that I’ve previously assessed in clinics often think that they need to completely avoid their favourite cultural foods in order to lower their risks. I tend to put their mind at ease by explaining that they don’t have to go on a ‘juice cleanse’, ‘detox diet’ or ‘eat cauliflower rice’ to be healthier (although the latter is a fantastic way to increase veg intake!).
Making small dietary changes like reducing portion sizes, including a variety of foods from main food groups (fruits and vegetables, starchy carbohydrates, protein, dairy and dairy alternatives, oils & spreads), changing cooking methods and limiting consumption of foods high in fat, sugar and salt are ways to ensure a healthy traditional diet.
There are some tips on the NHS website based on the Eatwell Guide on how you can make healthier eating choices. However, what I have noticed is that the Eatwell Guide is not ethnic specific and we do have a long way to go when it comes to making dietary guidelines that are tailored to different ethnic communities – but it is a very good foundation to work with.
Having said this, I have written below some tips that you can incorporate in your traditional African/African Caribbean diet:
1. Add more fruit and vegetables in your diet.
Aim for at least 5 portions of fruit & veg a day. One portion = 80g and is roughly the amount you can fit into the palm of your hand. Fresh, frozen, dried and canned fruit and vegetables all count towards your 5 a day!
- Go for a rainbow of colours, from foods such as cho cho, papaya, jackfruit, eggplant or green vegetables like callaloo, okra and spinach.
- Add a handful of vegetables to rice dishes, soups and stews.
- Have a piece of fruit as a mid-morning and mid-afternoon snack.
- Steam vegetables instead of boiling to retain flavour, colour and nutrients.
2. Base your meals on starchy carbohydrate foods.
Starchy carbohydrates should make up just over a third of the food you eat. Choose wholegrain or higher fibre versions where possible as it has good gut health benefits, can help stabilise blood sugar levels and lower cholesterol levels too.
- Consider having basmati rice, brown rice, wild rice, ofada rice or bulgar wheat as it is high in fibre, which helps to keep your digestive system working well.
- Have boiled or baked yam instead of fried yam (also be mindful of portion sizes).
- Reduce the portion size of eba, pounded yam, ugali, banku, fufu or plakali. Have more stew or soups instead (bulk it up with veggies or pulses).
- Bake or grill plantain rather than frying. If you decide to fry, use kitchen roll to remove excess oil.
- Leave the skin on potatoes to up your fibre intake!
3. Eat some beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat & other protein.
These foods are good sources of protein, vitamins and minerals.
- Aim for at least 2 portions of fish every week, 1 of which should be oily, such as salmon. A portion is a small tin or 140g (size of palm of hand).
- Swap salted codfish with other tasty fish like snapper or mackerel.
- Use beans & pulses in a stew to replace some (or all) of the meat.
- Add ground egusi seeds to your stews & soups.
- Cut off any visible fat and skin from meat before cooking.
- Grill or roast chicken instead of frying.
4. Include some dairy or dairy alternative products in your diet.
These are good sources of protein and some vitamins, and they’re also an important source of calcium, which helps keep our bones strong.
- Aim to have some dairy or dairy alternatives everyday. Choose lower-fat and lower-sugar versions.
- Be mindful of the sugar content of traditional milky drinks like Milo. Moderation is key!
- Use low fat coconut milk for rice and peas dishes.
- Evaporated milk has more calories than regular whole milk. Opt for semi-skimmed or skimmed milk instead.
- Have low fat dairy/dairy alternative snacks like yoghurt/soya yoghurt.
5. Be mindful with your oils and spreads.
Oils and spreads that contain unsaturated fats (‘healthier fats’) are better for your heart health. Too much saturated fat intake can lead health issues like cardiovascular disease.
- Choose unsaturated oils & spreads like rapeseed, olive and sunflower instead of palm oil, coconut oil, ghee and lard (as these contain saturated fat).
- If you want to add palm oil or coconut oil, try measuring a very small amount of oil instead of free pouring.
- Consider choosing fat spreads fortified with plant sterols and stanols (natural plant substances which reduce the absorption of cholesterol in the gut).
- All types of fat are high in energy and should be consumed sparingly.
6. Limit intake of foods high in fat, sugar & salt (HFSS)
Regular intake of HFSS food products is linked with increased risk of certain diseases such as type 2 diabetes, stroke, heart disease and obesity.
- Reduce consumption of malt drinks, full-sugar punch drinks and fizzy drinks.
- Have traditional snacks like plantain crisps, puff puff, chin chin, vetkoek, spice bun and festivals less often and in small amounts.
- Use fresh herbs & spices instead of salt.
- Make your own stock rather than using ready-made stock cubes like Maggi that are usually very high in salt.
- Boiling vegetables, any meat or fish bones with spices & herbs are ways you can make your own stock.