Modern diet and its impact on health

Modern diet relates to ‘junk food’ that simply means an empty calorie food. / Net photo

Harvesting food while conserving natural resources, and meeting the demands of a growing global population, is the goal of modern farming and ranching practices.

Some of these practices include; food biotechnology - which involves a range of processes used to enhance foods through various breeding and other techniques.


There is also local food production, which is most often produced, processed, packaged, distributed, and consumed within a smaller, defined area, experts say.


In addition to this, there is processed food which consumers associate with being less nutritious or containing artificial ingredients or other added substances.


According to Dr Christophe W. Ngendahayo, air and climate health expert, and founder of Air Health Now — working at Kibagabaga Hospital, the term ‘processed’ is commonly used to describe certain foods with low nutritional value, including snacks, desserts, and carbonated beverages.

Dr Kirimi Sindi, an agricultural economist, says highly processed foods like sugar, maize flour, wheat flour, cassava, spaghetti, noodles, are full of carbohydrates and most of the other nutrients have been removed. Therefore, he says, most people are eating ‘too much energy’.

He notes that when it comes to dining out, people eat foods like French fries, bread, burgers, ice cream, and drink soda and beer, all of which are full of sugar.

This, Sindi says, combined with our sedentary lifestyle, becomes an issue.

“When this happens, the excess energy taken in is converted to fat, creating high chances of becoming obese,” he says.

Dr Sindi goes on to add that these foods, coupled with sedentary lifestyles, lead to many non-communicable ailments.

Ngendahayo says food is a fundamental part of society; however, it is also at the centre of many challenges we face now, and will likely face in the future from a health, social, economic and environmental perspective.

Ngendahayo points out that for many, traditional diets are being replaced by processed fast foods where fat and sugar have become the cheapest way to get calories, cheaper than staples like grains, beans, lentils, or fruits and vegetables.

“These factors encourage a higher intake of calories while decreasing the energy (calories) spent through physical activity,” he says.

The implications

World Health Organization (WHO) defines overweight and obesity as abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that may impair health.

Body mass index (BMI) is used to classify overweight and obesity in adults.

Overweight is when BMI is greater than or equal to 25; and obesity is BMI greater than or equal to 30.

The fundamental cause of obesity and overweight is an energy imbalance between calories consumed and calories expended.

According to WHO, nowadays there is an increased intake of energy-dense foods that are high in fat and sugars; and an increase in physical inactivity due to the increasingly sedentary nature of many forms of work, changing modes of transportation, and increasing urbanisation.

Changes in dietary and physical activity patterns, WHO notes, are often the result of environmental and societal changes associated with the development, and lack of supportive policies in sectors such as health, agriculture, transport, and food processing, among others.

Overweight and obesity is a new epidemic globally, Ngendahayo says, we are experiencing health and environmental disasters, with rising rates of obesity and non-communicable diseases and severe challenges posed by climate change.

Globally, more than 1.9 billion adults aged 18 and older were overweight in 2016.  Of these, over 650 million adults were obese.

In Rwanda, according to the available statistics from Rwanda Biomedical Centre (RBC); overall, the Rwanda NCD survey found that 2.8 per cent are obese, 14.3 percent are overweight and 7.8 per cent underweight.

Obesity is prevalent in the age group 35 to 54 and females account for 4.7 per cent.

Additionally, the prevalence of obesity is more predominant in urban areas with 10.2 per cent and Kigali City with 7.7 per cent.

Overweight and obesity are linked to millions of deaths worldwide more than underweight and are the fifth highest risk factor for death, according to WHO.

Low-income economies are also the most vulnerable to the loss of productivity caused by early death and disability, while it can affect people from all levels of society.

Ngendahayo says that overweight and obesity exposes people to non-communicable diseases (NCDs), including heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and some forms of cancer. NCDs kill more people than all other causes combined.

“These diseases cause enormous human loss and impose heavy costs on health systems. They also reduce overall productivity by killing and disabling people in their productive years,” he adds.

Way forward

Private Kamanzi, a nutritionist at Amazon Nutrition Cabinet, Kigali, says eating a healthy diet and being physically active is essential as it will keep these conditions at bay.

He notes that turning to organic food reduces, or cutting off processed and sugary drinks, is vital as well.

Given the threats we are faced by obesity and overweight, Ngendahayo says urgent radical change is required.

“Government and non-government organisations have vital roles to play in changing the policies and practices that shape behaviour around diet and physical activity,” he says.

These, he says, include the trade, agriculture, transport and other urban planning policies that determine whether people have healthy options, as well as investment in education, media, and marketing that influence people’s choices.

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