Does African foods/diet cause weight gain?

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FOOD is regarded as integral part of our heritage.

What we eat and why we eat certain foods, is culturally, religiously, psychologically, politically influenced. African foods are considered “poverty foods”, nutrient deficient foods or cause of obesity/ weight gain. Unfortunately, the truth about African foods was replaced with incorrect truth that quickly became the new “truth”.

Black South Africans became poor so they presented with all sorts of diseases and undernutrition parameters related to poverty (such as stunting, rickets, vitamin A deficiency, kwashiorkor, marasmus, you name it – please don’t put Human Immuno- deficiency Virus (HIV – infection) in that list. There are reasons to that and many of them, if not all the reasons are linked to the apartheid regime impact.  

These include:

  • Land dispossession – Many black people were forced out of their fertile farmable land. They could no longer freely farm and grow their own foods. They ran out and then relied on the government to give them food. This gave government power to decide what foods to bring or not to bring to black people.
  • Urbanization – Black people moved to the city to seek a better life, men went first, women followed later. In the city, they spent time commuting to work, they had no choice but to come up with ideas of on-the-go meals.  Some convenient foods were brought into play by the state as part of the state-powered food monopolies. These foods such as refined maize meal, or white flour (which was used to make vetkeoek, dumplings, ujeqe etc.) quickly became our staple foods
  • Psychological scars – Living in poverty is no child’s play. When you hear the common Zulu proverb “ikati lilelele eziko” you would know that things are bad, there is no food. This does leave psychological scars that are hard to ignore and experiencing this type of poverty make people say, “I will never be poor again” and despise foods that they associate with that era.

The solutions to the disease problems we encountered included food fortification, vitamin A supplement and others to solve problems brought by the cries of apartheid. Unfortunately, the message spread got distorted and displayed African traditional foods as being insufficient and “unhealthy”

Destroying African food narrative & destruction of the African nutrition narrative was an intentional act. This was done so that new food or nutritional developments were to be termed as best inventions of our time and thus, we be told “you didn’t have nutritious foods before”.

Urbanisation, Psychological scars, and land dispossession, without a doubt introduced us to unhealthy foods, habits and lifestyle. High consumption of sugary drinks and foods as well high energy foods is not originally part of the African diet.  Here is the truth: Vetkoek, dumpling/ ujeqe/ scones/ highly refined maize meal products and the likes are not our African foods.  Urbanisation and acculturation introduced us to unhealthy ways of cooking, seasoning and even how we serve our foods.  High sugar intake, high salt intake, high alcohol intake… are some of the changes that we adopted over the years that contribute to weight gain/ obesity and diseases.

The African traditional foods or diet is not the cause of weight gain.

I am talking about:

  • Vegetables such as Morogo (all types), amakhowe (mushrooms)
  • Izinkobe for snack (boiled mealies) or amakinati abhashiwe (roasted peanuts)
  • Tshidzimba (Samp + beans + peanuts)
  • Usu (tripe)
  • Ezangaphakathi zenkukhu, amawontwana (offal & chicken feet)
  • Inhlonko (OX head meat)

Our nutrition truth or food truth has been questioned far too long to the point that we started questioning our own truth. We start asking each other questions such as “does African food cause weight gain?”, “is my belly fat caused by eating tripe?”.

Black people should never change themselves to lose weight or in pursuit of good health. Those who love African foods should eat them with no shame or guilt. Weight loss diet plans in Africa, particularly in South Africa where majority of the population is black people should embrace and include African foods as per individual’s preference. The notion that African foods are “unhealthy” and are a reason for weight gain should be revoked. Black people should pride themselves of their food and stop calling it names. African foods are healthy, high fibre, low fat, sustainable, affordable & part of our heritage.

I am not saying black Africans should only eat African diet or foods, No! I am saying the name calling, dragging, guilt associated with African traditional foods must end. The reason our country has the highest obesity statistics is not because of the African diet. The high hypertension statistics among black people in South Africa is not because they eat ox head meat (inhlonko) but the poor dietary choices and habits such as adding salt on top of the cooked ox head meat are some of the reasons for hypertension.  Yes, even tripe (Usu/Muhodu) is healthy with its natural saturated fat, as well vitamins & minerals. Saturated fats are permitted to be part of our healthy diet in controlled amounts.

The focus should be on overall nutrition education, behaviour modification, choosing variety of foods, portion control, intake of vegetables and fruits, increase in fibre and water intake, alcohol intake in moderation, developing a good relationship with food, Use less salt and oil in cooking, remove visible fat in meat.

Part of re-instating Africa is also about re-instating the African foods original truth. Part of being WOKE is about restoring our food culture to help restore respect and dignity of our people.

Today, the power is in our hands. The era of oppression is long gone.  The time is now for us to take control, change the way we eat and get back to eating nutritious foods the way we want as black Africans and not the forced way. We look at ourselves, seek help to set our goals, be guided and reach our health goals without changing who we are. Taking away people’s food, tempers with people’s heritage.


Yours In Health

Mbali Mapholi


Author: Mbali Mapholi Inc

Mbali is a qualified clinical dietitian (Bsc. dietetics & PGDip dietetics) obtained from the University of KwaZulu-Natal. In dietetics she has special interest in Heart and heart related diseases, gastrointestinal (GIT) related diseases, weight management and African diet nutrition. She is a business woman with entities MiNutrition ZA and Mbali Mapholi Inc, under her belt. She is well published in the field of Nutrition with ray of media contributions (Radio, television and print media). Mbali believes is the type of eating that is nourishing, enjoyable, accessible and affordable. She believes in that nutrition education that is based on science delivered by a trusted source, is important to help people make informed nutrition decisions for themselves and those around them.

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2 thoughts on “Does African Foods/Diet cause weight gain?

  1. Hi Mbali . Thank you very much for your blog . I was born in Zimbabwe and grew up on soghurm sadza pap and traditional meat . A lot of vegetables and fruit . Dried mushrooms etc And I am testimony to that . I am fit as a fiddle and never sick . My son who turns 2 in a month eats soghurm porridge and looks 3 already .

    My question to you is do you have a dietary plan that I can maybe follow . I despise much of the food that gets thrown our way as healthy and would kindly request your list

    1. Mbali Mapholi Inc says:

      Good day,
      Thank you for reaching out. Unfortunately, I cannot be able to offer you bespoke advise on that as your nutrition needs are individualized. I would encourage you to check out our online consultations offering, in that way I will be able to still do nutrition assessment and offer you a diet plan.


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