Why a shift in dietary perspectives is key to changing nutritional habits in Tanzania

What you need to know:

  • Despite the abundance of food resources and agricultural diversity, many Tanzanians suffer from nutritional deficiencies.
  • This paradox is deeply rooted in lifestyle choices and dietary habits, particularly the reliance on staple foods and the lack of dietary diversity.

In Tanzania, malnutrition remains a pressing issue, affecting both children and adults.

Despite the abundance of food resources and agricultural diversity, many Tanzanians suffer from nutritional deficiencies.

This paradox is deeply rooted in lifestyle choices and dietary habits, particularly the reliance on staple foods and the lack of dietary diversity.

In the bustling city of Dar es Salaam, the diet primarily revolves around rice, fish, chips, and beans. These foods are easily accessible and affordable for many households.

A resident of Dar es Salaam, Faudhia Mussa, explains, "In my family, we eat rice almost every day. Sometimes we have fish, and we often eat chips, (buying it from the vendors) and beans. Vegetables are added occasionally, but they are not always affordable."

Rice is a rich source of carbohydrates, which provides energy, but it lacks essential vitamins and minerals. Fish offers proteins and some omega-3 fatty acids, contributing to muscle and brain health.

However, the frequent consumption of chips, which are high in fats and low in nutrients, can contribute to unhealthy weight gain and other health issues. Beans are a good source of protein and fibre, but relying heavily on them can lead to an imbalance in the diet, missing out on other necessary nutrients like iron, vitamin A, and zinc.

The combination of these foods often results in an unbalanced diet. While they cover some nutritional bases, they fall short of providing a comprehensive array of nutrients necessary for overall health.

The reliance on a limited range of foods means that many families miss out on other essential nutrients, leading to deficiencies.

In the regions of Mwanza and Mara, located on the shores of Lake Victoria, the diet is heavily centred around ugali (a stiff maize porridge), Dagaa (small sardine-like fish), and other types of fish.

Jerome Mathayo, a fisherman from Mwanza, shares his experience: "We eat fish and ugali almost daily. Dagaa is especially common because it’s cheap and plentiful. Occasionally, we have some greens or fruits, but they are not a regular part of our diet."

However, Ugali is a staple carbohydrate source, providing energy needed for daily activities. Dagaa and other fish are crucial sources of protein and essential fatty acids.

However, the diet often lacks variety. The infrequent consumption of fruits and vegetables means that many residents miss out on vital vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin C, vitamin A, and iron. This dietary pattern can lead to nutritional deficiencies and associated health problems.

In the Kilimanjaro region, bananas are a primary staple. Grace Lymo, a resident of Kilimanjaro, notes: "We grow a lot of bananas, so they are a big part of our diet. We eat bananas in various forms almost every day."

While bananas provide some essential nutrients, relying heavily on them can also result in an imbalanced diet, lacking in proteins, fats, and certain vitamins and minerals.

In the Kagera region, the diet is similarly centred around bananas, but with the addition of Dagaa and other types of fish. Bananas are consumed in various forms, such as cooked, boiled, or mashed.

They are a versatile and abundant food source in this region. A resident, Eliakim Ntamwemezi, explains: "Bananas are our main food. We eat them with dagaa or other fish we get from Lake Victoria. It is what we have in plenty."

Dagaa and fish provide essential proteins and omega-3 fatty acids, crucial for muscle and brain health.

The reliance on bananas and fish means that other food groups, particularly those rich in vitamins and minerals, might be underrepresented in the diet.

This can lead to deficiencies in nutrients such as iron, vitamin A, and zinc, which are essential for overall health.

Health experts emphasise that the repetitive consumption of the same staple foods contributes significantly to malnutrition.

A nutritionist from Bugando Medical Centre, Dr Zahoro Nizzar reveals that when people eat the same types of food every day, they are likely to miss out on a variety of nutrients that are essential for good health.

“A balanced diet is what we should all care about, instead of focusing on just what we can get. We need to feed our bodies properly so that we can be healthy,” he shares.

Dr Nizzar says that dietary habits are often culturally ingrained, making it challenging to encourage variety.

"In many Tanzanian cultures, certain foods are preferred or seen as more prestigious. Changing these perceptions and promoting a balanced diet requires education and awareness,” he says.

On top of that, another BMC medical doctor, Dr Damian Canisius shares: “We really need to change our mind sets and teach our families not to rely on the same type of food because most of them don’t know how they are affected, they simply follow the dietary patterns set by their parents before them.”

He went on to say people should know that a balanced diet is not a single type of food, rather, it includes a variety of foods from different food groups such as carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, and minerals. Each of these groups plays a crucial role in maintaining health.

"Poverty is a significant barrier. When people have limited resources, they prioritise filling foods that can sustain them, often at the expense of variety instead of thinking what is better for their health, which is an angle of thinking that we lack in our country," he explains.

Explaining on the cultural preferences, Dr Nizzar says that cultural preferences and traditional cooking methods also play a significant role.

“Foods like rice, ugali, fish, and bananas are not only staples but are also deeply embedded in the cultural fabric. Changing these habits requires not only education but also respect for cultural traditions like teaching people how they can mix-up these traditional foods and other foods to get a balanced diet,” he reveals.

Adding to this, Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), Tanzania’s Head of Programme, Dr Winfrida Mayilla, emphasises that although efforts indicate that Tanzania will reduce malnutrition from 30 percent to 24 percent by 2030, more education is needed to make sure the country gets rid of this challenge.

"Tanzanians must be educated further to take appropriate steps to protect their families from malnutrition. Instead of focusing solely on making sure their families are full, they need to think about a complete diet," she asserts.

She stresses that the current focus on filling foods, which are often inexpensive but nutritionally limited, needs to shift towards understanding and incorporating a variety of foods that offer comprehensive nutritional benefits.

"Changing dietary habits is not an easy task, especially when they are deeply rooted in cultural practices. However, by working together and respecting these traditions while introducing healthier alternatives, we can create a positive shift towards better nutrition," she says.

She adds: “The whole society should know that even with a small amount of money they can get a balanced diet on their tables but first, they need is to know the different groups of foods and understand their benefits in the human body.”