Stakeholders in the health and nutrition sector have called for dietary diversification in Nigeria, to reduce the rate of malnutrition and curtail protein deficiency in the nation.
The call was made during a recent protein challenge webinar themed: “Protein deficiency: Bridging the knowledge gap”.
A nutrition expert, Professor Henrietta Nkechi Ene-Obong, Professor of human nutrition and dietetics, University of Calabar, stated that adequate knowledge and information must be disseminated to the public to inform them about the locally available protein-rich food sources and how to diversify the family diet.
She stated that protein deficiency has lingered on due to low dietary diversity, monotonous diets, and poor feeding habits.
She further stated that: “diet diversity refers to the variety of food nutrients packed in a plate at any given time. Unfortunately, many individuals just eat rice, carbohydrates, and other unhealthy foods every day, without utilizing healthy indigenous food sources around them”.
She said Nigerians need to pay attention to ethnic differences in food habits and choices, as these food habits affect infants, children and adolescents.
According to Professor Ene Obong: “babies and children are the most impacted by malnutrition and people with more physiological requirements like pregnant and lactating mothers, need more proteins in their diets. When they are not fed nutritious foods, the consequences are far reaching.”
She said available reports indicated that Nigeria has a high number of children affected by malnutrition and protein deficiency, citing the Nigeria Demographic and Health Survey 2018 (NDHS) as well as The Nigerian Protein Deficiency Report 2019.
She stated that to lessen protein deficiency, increasing protein intake and protein quality is important, as proteins are the building blocks of the body.
The professor noted that protein quality from food sources is dependent on the balance of essential amino acids contained in the food.
She said: “animal source foods (A.S.F) are good sources of complete proteins, while plant source foods (P.S.F) are lower in complete proteins. However, certain plant source foods like soybeans are exceptions, because it contains complete proteins with an abundant amount of essential amino acids.”
Another panelist at the webinar, Dr. Mrs. Ifeoma Augustina Akeredolu, a member of the Nutrition Society of Nigeria, and the Society for Nutrition Education USA, noted that the food base dietary guidelines in Nigeria are all outdated.
She advocated for the food dietary guidelines to be thoroughly reviewed and updated according to the Food and Agriculture Organisations (F.A.O) standard.
She stated that Nigerians must focus on nutrient density and diet diversity to tackle malnutrition in all its forms.
Dr. Ifeoma said: “variety, they say, is the spice of life. People must come up with different recipes with local food crops like soybeans, Bambara, African yam beans, vegetables, and even alfalfa. If we follow the standard food based dietary guidelines, we would make progress in curtailing protein deficiency.”
Dr. Bimbo Oyedokun, a medical expert and a healthcare management consultant, was also present as a panelist at the webinar.
He highlighted the various signs and symptoms of protein deficiency, stating that protein deficient individuals experience fatigue, hair loss, reddish skin and brittle dentition.
He added that: “immuno-compromised adults and other members of society need to increase their protein intake, to reduce the risk of being protein deficient. Also, consumption of protein foods can fortify the immune system from diseases and infections.”
Dr. Bimbo stated that nutrition education must be given top priority, in order to equip individuals with proper knowledge about nutrients and healthy lifestyles.
In his closing remarks, he appealed to Nigerians to use preventive measures to resolve malnutrition issues. He said: “prevention of protein deficiency using the food-based approach has been recognized as the most cost-effective strategy in dealing with this health disorder. Also, Nigerians need to embrace local food sources, to completely eradicate malnutrition.”
The webinar was moderated by Mrs. Anwuli Ogbonnaya, a chef and healthy food expert.