Eating your way to disease and early death

Monday November 2 2015

Millicent Murugi, a breast cancer survivor, speaks to the Nation during an interview at her Kiganjo home in Nyeri County. Cancer survivors in any public forum always demand to be told which foods gave them cancer. PHOTO | JOSEPH KANYI | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Millicent Murugi, a breast cancer survivor, speaks to the Nation during an interview at her Kiganjo home in Nyeri County. Cancer survivors in any public forum always demand to be told which foods gave them cancer. PHOTO | JOSEPH KANYI | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

By DAVID MAKUMI
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There is an adage in 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 public wants to know which foods cause 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. 

Policies and practices that promote healthy eating from infancy to adulthood should, therefore, be prioritised, although legislation on the advertisement, 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 those of the bowel. 

The meat-based diets favoured by the moneyed lot, especially nyama choma and processed meats such as hot dogs and sausages, are associated with an increased risk of colorectal cancer, according to the just-released World Health Organization expert panel report.  

These foods should be consumed in moderate amounts and certainly not in the quantities that Kenyans consume every weekend.

UNHEALTHY LIFESTYLE

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. 

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

The young are not left behind in this unhealthy eating frenzy.

They indulge in carbonated drinks full of refined sugar.

The soft drinks industry has always pushed a subtle message that it is not diet but lack of exercise that is to blame for obesity and unhealthy lifestyles.

Children and youth in the emerging markets of the developing countries are a particularly vulnerable target of aggressive and relentless marketing by multinational food and fizzy drinks companies. 

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

PROCESSED MEATS

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

This would definitely invite drawn-out court battles, injunctions, and counter-injunctions.

The way to promote healthy choices is to package science-based public health messaging on established lifestyle risk factors — such as obesity, inactivity, tobacco, alcohol, unhealthy diets — in a way that is attractive to the youth.

Goal number three of the recently adopted Sustainable Developments Goals seeks to ensure healthy lives and promote the wellbeing for all at all ages.

There is no shortcut to achieving this particular goal: physical activity and a deliberate effort to change our eating habits will be a good start.