Saturday, April 30, 2011

Impressions from East Africa: food

I can tell you what I haven't seen in Africa yet:  not a single American fast food chain.  This isnt to say that they don't have any similar things.  I guess there are a few local fast food type places in Nairobi, although I didn't see them.  Also, lots of restaurants serve fried potatoes ("chips" they call them, as in Britain, instead of "French fries").

I haven't been able to really nail down a specific culinary style since I've been here, but the food is very tasty.  Cooked spinach seems to be common and that is one of my favorites.  Rice is standard at every meal.  Lentils and potatoes make frequent appearances.  At Saids house, his wife (Mama Kay) made a spicy red dish with meat and sauce that was excellent over rice.  Because of the amazing weather here, produce is outstanding and fruit is amazing.   Oddly, they don't seem to eat much salad despite all of the fresh vegetables.  I haven't seen anyone growing lettuce.  Actually, I only had my first salad of the trip at Dr Hansen's house, our 7th day in Africa.

When touring the hospital a couple days ago, Dr Hansen was saying how he almost never sees precocious puberty in children in Africa.  As for my own observations, I have seen very few under-nourished children since being here, but also I don't think I've seen a single over-weight child, let alone an obese one.

We were talking about the precocious puberty that we see in the states the other day.  It seems, anecdotally, more common in the African American community, and I bet there are stats to back that up.  It definitely affects Americans of all types, though.  Being here has pretty clearly demonstrated that it has nothing to do with being of African ancestry*, so it must be something about being of African ancestry in America.  Well, African Americans are more likely to be of lower socioeconomic status, and quality of diet decreases with socioeconomic status.

So what is it about the American diet that causes precocious puberty?  One culprit could be the antibiotics and growth hormones we pump in our food.  As Colleen pointed out, a chicken breast in Africa is much smaller than an American chicken breast.  Here, the chickens just wander around the fields all day eating bugs.  In America, chickens are manufactured.  Their breasts are so big they sometimes can't even walk.  Alternatively, the precocious puberty could just as easily be related to the number of calories American children get, and from where.  Simply over eating might encourage premature development.

There are a lot of claims about what American food is doing to American children.  Its hard to figure out what is hype and what is real.  Seeing a place like Tanzania provides a helpful contrast.   The food is mostly locally grown.  The cows and goats actually eat grass instead of growth hormone-infused corn.  The chickens are essentially feral.  The food is home cooked, and not from chain restaurants.  It becomes much easier to see what American food is doing to American children.

Obviously, American food has been negatively influencing American adults, too.  I had put on 10-15 pounds over the last year that was just not going away; I wouldn't be surprised if half of it was gone when I get home, if not all of it (my weight easily fluctuated).  Dr Hansen has lost forty pounds since being here.  So if anyone is struggling with their weight, just move here.  I've heard that McDonalds wants to expand onto this continent.  They should do Africans a favor, and not.  There are enough challenges here to deal with already.  The last thing Africa needs is an obesity epidemic driven by American government-subsidized industrially processed food.

No comments: