Are we eating our way to disease, disability and death?


Roast meat
Roast meat

There is an adage within the cancer community that any public lecture on cancer must have a generous serving of food, politics and science.

Cancer Survivors in any public forum always demand to be told which foods gave them cancer while the general public wants to know which foods causes cancer.

Though we cannot pinpoint one single food item and say it is responsible for all cancers, there is unequivocal evidence that unhealthy foods and drinks are among the key lifestyle drivers of the rising cases of Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs).

Implementation of policies and practices that promote healthy eating from infancy to adulthood should therefore be prioritised although legislation on advertisements, distribution, and sale of some of the unhealthy food products is largely lacking due to political lethargy and vested interests.

The growing Kenyan middle class has adopted peculiar eating habits that exclude vegetables. Yet there is clear evidence that diets high in fruits and vegetables – as well as whole grains and beans decrease the risk for some cancers notably bowel cancer.

The meat based diets favoured by the moneyed lot, especially Nyama Choma and processed meats like hot dogs and sausages, are associated with an increased risk of colorectal cancer according to the just released World Health Organisation expert panel report.

These foods should be consumed in moderate amounts and certainly not in the quantities that Kenyans consume every weekend. The copious amount of alcohol which our Nyama Choma weekend binge eaters use to wash down their indulgences is a known  risk factor for several cancers including liver, mouth, and oesophagus.

Shisha and related tobacco products all loaded with potent carcinogens always complete the party that leads to disease, disability and deaths.

The young are not left behind in this unhealthy eating frenzy. They are catered for through a bottomless supply of carbonated drinks. The role of refined sugars commonly found in sodas in the unfolding NCD’s epidemic is a hot button issue.

Soft drinks industry players have always pushed a subtle message that it is not diet but lack of exercise that is to blame for childhood obesity and unhealthy lifestyles. Many adults and children with gross obesity are functionally disabled.

Children and youth in the so called emerging markets of the developing countries are a particularly vulnerable target of aggressive and relentless marketing by multinational food and fizzy drinks companies. The low income populations are ‘well taken care of’ through soft drinks and fast foods specifically packaged for the kadogo economy .

The mother of all public health advocacy coups will be legislation requiring all soda cans and bottles to have warning labels that sugar causes obesity among other health problems.

Perhaps now packages for sausages and other processed meats should also carry some sort disclosure of the cancer risks.

But any attempt to regulate labelling and advertisement of food or drinks will definitely invite long drawn court battles, injunctions and counter-injunctions and the inevitable industry sponsored ‘retreats’ for politicians to understand the ‘issues.’

The only way to promote healthy choices is to ensure science based public health messaging on established lifestyle risk factors – obesity, inactivity, tobacco, alcohol, unhealthy diets is packaged in a way that is attractive to the youth so as not to lose ground to the plethora of inaccurate information peddled by national and multinational food and drinks companies and perpetuated by sponsorships and advertisements.

Goal number 3 of the recently adopted Sustainable Developments Goals (SDG’s) seeks to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.

There is no short cut to achieve this particular goal; but physical activity and a deliberate effort to change our eating habits will be a very good start.

By David Makumi

The writer is Manager, Cancer Program, Aga Khan University Hospital, Nairobi and Chair, Kenya Network of Cancer Organizations(KENCO). dkmakumi@gmail.com

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