When you think of nutrition what do you think of?
As a student at Friedman I spend a lot of time thinking about fields and subsistence farmers and lack of food security and how nutrition fits into this picture. I definitely summon more images of agriculture and markets than of specific vegetable and fruit intake amounts, generally speaking.
That is until now. Diane you’ve converted me!
On my trip to Malawi many dietary patterns, purchasing experiences and a nutrition course came together and now have me conjuring images of macronutrients, micronutrients, vitamins and minerals.
I prefer to keep a vegan diet about 90% of the time with the exception being seafood on occasion. One of my travel partners here is a vegetarian and the other needs to keep a gluten free diet. Now, in Boston, and many many places, any of these eating patterns can easily be maintained in terms of products that fulfill the diet constraints and nutritional balance (enough protein, etc). In Blantyre it is slightly more complicated and outside of Blantyre extremely complicated.
It has been this search for food items to help keep these dietary patterns that has me thinking about our food preferences (key word preferences, since we have the choice to eliminate food sources from our diets and at times entire food groups), local diets and local choices and access to adequate nutrition.
The study of adequate nutritional intake is not new and the dilema over sufficient daily calories versus sufficient nutrient dense calories has been well documented by Friedman scholars and many others. But I have not thought about this in the context of Malawi before, so today in Blantyre what does a meal look like? and how close or far from a sufficiently nutrient dense meal is it?
Nsima, beans and pumpkin leaves is a staple in Blantyre and many places in Malawi with a slight variation found in Lilongwe and northern regions, rice, beans and pumpkin leaves.
At the market we saw pulses and some fruit and vegetables (bananas, papaya, tomatoes, various tubers) that could be added in one’s daily food consumption in addition to the sample meal I have chosen here. But who has access to purchase, how frequently and the contributions those items make to a nutritiously balanced diet will be covered in a subsequent post (that post will go into detail about crop diversification, drought that are in part behind the limited offereings).
Nsima and beans, both carbohydrates, form complimentary proteins and contribute to both one’s carbohydrate and protein daily intake. The pumpkin leaves (the pumpkin is a fruit and also a carbohydrate) carry great vitamins and minerals (Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Calcium, and Iron). There is a bit of oil and salt in the meal that contribute a small amount to lipid intake and sodium intake. While the dish is delicious, it is largely carbohydrate based and lacks many important nutritional components (missing amino acids, monounsaturated fat, vitamins and minerals from shellfish, orange/yellow vegetables and fruits).
By pointing out the missing components I am not suggesting animal based products need to be the main food sources for obtaining the missing nutrients, in fact, in keeping a vegan diet I am well aware there are ways to source nutrients from enriched foods, complimentary foods, and supplements. However, the non animal products available in Boston are not readily available here, and those that are my not be cost effective so I’m listing sample food sources that could be obtained generally here.
With a diet reliant on this staple meal 1 or 2 times a day (and for long periods of time) many important nutrients are missing that have health implications, for young children this means growth and development issues among other things.
Adopting the local diet has underscored to me the call from advocates and practitioners in public health, nutrition, policy and agriculture to look at food security in a holistic way that includes calories and nutrients. From the ag view, this also means drought and pest resistant crops (modified seeds) which are often misunderstood and mish-mashed with seed work Monsanto. (More to come on GE later!)
To understand this holistic dimension of dietary patterns in Blantyre we are informally talking to people around town to get a sense of how this staple meal fits in with daily consumption patterns and food diversity patters. This will provide additional insight to what we will see in the rural areas.
UPDATE: UBALE enumerators (who have been amazing) have indulged our questions and our habits! In the exchange a favorite snack of ours was shared, bananas and peanut butter, and has everyone on the protein bandwagon! Groundnuts are a very common crop here so the absence of spreading peanut butter surprised me but we are enjoying the love PB is getting and hope it sticks after we are gone.