Health impact of ultra-processed foods in Africa

Ultra-processed foods make up more than half of the average diet in developed and most developing countries. (Photo iStock)

Jabari, 16, a student living in the city, leads a daily routine of school work, playing video games and socializing with his friends.

However, behind his seemingly normal life lies a health problem: his diet is filled with ultra-processed foods.

This became a concern after Jabari began experiencing unexplained weakness, affecting academic performance and overall energy levels. His parents became concerned about his health and sought medical advice, which revealed high cholesterol and triglyceride levels, an alarming finding for a young person.

Jabari’s story illustrates a broader crisis unfolding across Africa, where rapid urbanization and economic changes have altered eating habits. Although appealing, the convenience of processed foods contributes to a worrying increase in cardiometabolic diseases such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

This dietary trend, characterized by increased consumption of fast food and packaged snacks, poses a public health challenge that threatens to undermine health progress in Africa.

Driven by Jabari’s medical results, his family embarked on a journey to transform his eating habits. They replaced ultra-processed snacks and fast foods with whole, minimally processed, nutrient-dense alternatives.

This change went beyond simply replacing unhealthy items with healthier options; it involved a complete change in lifestyle. The family began incorporating a variety of locally available fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins into their diet. They have abandoned the lure of junk food to adopt sustainable and healthy eating habits. Despite these positive changes, another aspect of Jabari’s health problem emerged: a vitamin D deficiency, exacerbated by his mostly indoor lifestyle.

This highlighted another essential aspect of modern urban life: limited exposure to natural sunlight, which is essential for the synthesis of vitamin D – a critically important micronutrient – ​​in the body. Jabari’s family introduced supplements into his diet, to restore his vitality and meet his body’s needs.

Jabari’s experience highlights the urgent need for a comprehensive approach to tackling Africa’s food-related health crisis. Governments and health policy makers must prioritize the development of public health campaigns that raise awareness of the risks associated with poor dietary choices. There is an urgent need for strict food safety, quality and labeling regulations to ensure that consumers are well informed and protected from the harmful effects of ultra-processed foods.

Schools and community centers should become focal points for food education, providing platforms for sharing knowledge on nutrition and healthy eating habits. Programs that promote physical activity should also be integrated into educational programs to improve physical health and counteract sedentary tendencies that are becoming predominant due to urbanization. The private sector also plays an important role. Food manufacturers and retailers can contribute to public health by reducing the sugar, fat and salt content of their products and offering healthy alternatives.

Collaborative efforts between governments and the private sector can lead to innovations in food processing and retailing that prioritize consumer health without compromising taste or profits. However, tackling only ultra-processed foods is not enough. Public health strategies must include not only macronutrient guidelines, but also the availability of micronutrients to combat deficiencies that are more subtle but no less damaging.

Ultimately, Jabari’s story and his family’s proactive adjustments in their life choices highlight a critical path that others can follow. Africans must also create consumer movements to protect themselves from unhealthy foods by advocating for clearer markings on foods, controls on how unhealthy foods are advertised, and tax regimes that force food manufacturers to -transformed to finance health more.

Writers work at Amref Health Africa in Kenya

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