Every living organism needs food, not just any food, but quality food. Food is any substance (liquid, solid or semi-solid) which is consumed to provide the body with nutrients. When we hear nutrients, we should think of them as substances found in food which give the body energy, body structure and regulate body processes.
Currently, there are more than 50 known nutrients and many other chemicals that are thought to influence human function and health. These nutrients have been grouped into six classes, with each playing a special role in human nutrition. One such special macronutrient is protein.
Generally, proteins are necessary for growth, repairs and maintenance of the body, but more specifically, they perform several roles, including, but not limited to, structural role and support, muscle contraction and hormone regulation. Despite the many benefits of proteins to us, the reality is that many people are protein deficient. And even with on-going efforts to curb this menace, protein deficiency still persists.
The urgency of the situation brought together nutritionists and medical experts at the recently held Protein Challenge Webinar themed “Protein Deficiency: Bridging The Knowledge Gap”. The session was a veritable platform to discuss the way forward in curtailing protein deficiency in Nigeria. Discussed below are some of the solutions proffered by these stakeholders.
From the time life begins, till the end, adequate nutrition is essential. Also important is dietary diversification. Dietary Diversity refers to the number of different foods, or food groups, consumed over a given reference period. A diverse diet aims to ensure that nutrient adequacy is achieved, since different foods and food groups are good sources for various macro and micronutrients. A cursory look at an average Nigerian’s diet will show a large consumption of one class of food – carbohydrates.
The Nigeria Protein Deficiency Report 2019, indeed indicates that carbohydrates are the most consumed food amongst Nigerians. Rice topped the list with 91 per cent, closely followed by ‘swallows’ (such as eba, amala, fufu, pounded yam, etc.) at 83 per cent.
There is an urgent need to change this narrative if the goal is to curtail the incidence of protein deficiency in the country. Protein-rich foods should be a major part of our staple diet, along with fruits and vegetables, among other classes of foods.
The idea of protein complementation is basically to increase protein intake. So, instead of consuming that huge portion of rice alone, complement it with a legume (beans, peas or lentils). Protein-rich foods are blended with other foods and consumed as a meal in one sitting.
This complementation, or blending, can be done at both the household and industrial levels. If properly implemented, it would boost the consumption of soybean, enhance quality protein intake, boost the health of individuals and families and possibly reduce the food budget.
The inclusion of high-quality and affordable plant protein, such as soybeans, in our meals is something that everyone should consider. Bambara nuts, African yam beans and pigeon peas are other examples of very rich protein sources that should become a part of our diet.
Some ideas for complementary protein meals include Tofu with rice, Lentils, legumes, or beans served with pasta, Yoghurt and nuts, wholegrain cereal and milk. Also, we should include vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower and other protein-rich vegetables in our diets to obtain more nutrients.
Proper and Accessible Healthcare
In Nigeria, protein deficiency is a real health concern. Its growing prevalence across several regions produces visible symptoms, which include water retention, reddish skin, pale skin, limp hair, fatty liver, etc. More worrisome is the fact that protein deficiency can lead to other nutrient-related illnesses like anaemia, beri beri and wasting. With these kinds of nutrition issues facing the populace, there is a strong need to look into the national healthcare policy in Nigeria and develop a holistic approach to tackle the challenges.
A proper and affordable healthcare system should enable people to get access to primary healthcare services without worrying about the cost. Primary healthcare centres should be a great place to gain useful knowledge on how to increase protein intake, what protein foods to consume to fortify the immune system and how to reduce the risks of being protein deficient.
As the nation intensifies efforts to close the protein deficiency knowledge gap, nutrition education and advocacy are essential. People must be encouraged to improve on their dietary habits. This is where diet diversity and protein complementation become indispensable. Of course, this must all be backed with an affordable healthcare system.