West African diets are some of the healthiest in the world

Eating habits are getting worse in the world — but some countries are doing pretty well.

A Western African food stall in London, UK. The dietary patterns between the two countries are very different.

What we eat has an immense impact on our health, but we don’t really pay it as much attention as we probably should. It’s not hard to see that the world isn’t really eating healthily — worldwide obesity has tripled in the past 50 years, and over 2 billion adults are overweight (and childhood obesity is also on the rise). At the same time, close to 1 billion people are malnourished.

No doubt, we still have a lot to figure out when it comes to the global food system. A part of this problem can be traced to how much we eat, but another part is what we eat. In 2015, a group of researchers looked at what people around the world eat.

Around the world in 2,000 calories

The study only looked at the nutritional quality of what people eat– not at how much people eat. In other words, they analyzed how many healthy and unhealthy foods tend to be in diets across the world, and how the two sides balance out. The study simply analyzed how diets around the world would compare if they all came in at 2,000 calories a day (an important distinction considering the average American consumes 3,600 calories a day, and 1 in 4 people in Sub-Saharan Africa are malnourished). So with this important distinction, how do diets in different countries compare?

It’s probably safe to say that few people would expect the United States to top any list on healthy nutrition, but one could plausibly expect wealthier countries to have better diets — after all, they can afford it. But that’s not at all what researchers found. People from Sub-Saharan Africa (and West Africa especially) ranked significantly better than the wealthier countries in Europe and North America.

Surprisingly, European diets came up very short, while some diets in parts of Africa South East Asia fared much better. Image credits: Imamura et al, 2015.

The main conclusion of the study is that in much of the world, eating habits are getting worse. Worldwide consumption of healthy foods increased, but in high-income countries that were often outpaced by the growing intake of unhealthy foods, the study found. Other countries, such as India or Uruguay, also fared relatively well.

The team looked at the intake of both healthy foods (like vegetables and legumes) and unhealthy foods (like processed meat). They found that in many wealthier countries, the intake of healthier foods is increasing — but it’s counterbalanced by the intake of unhealthy foods. Basically, they’re eating a little more healthy things, but a lot more unhealthy things; so overall, in much of the world, the quality of diets are decreasing.

The West African diet is heavy on starch and vegetables, and light on meat. It also features a lot of fat. The staple dish in some cultures of this area is a dish called fufu, which blends root vegetables such as yams or cassava together with a soup or stews. West African cuisine also features more seafood and leafy greens than the rest of the continent.

People around the world eat many different things. Some are healthy, and some are less so. If you want some takeaways from the study, you don’t necessarily need to get inspiration from a particular area — but there are some trends you can follow. In general, diets low in processed foods are healthier, as are those lower in saturated fats and red meats. Diets that feature a lot of plant-based foods tend to be healthier and of course, not eating too much (or too little) is essential for a healthy diet.

The study “Dietary quality among men and women in 187 countries in 1990 and 2010: a systematic assessment” was published in Cell.

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