By Florence Gichoya
Pascal an expectant mother from Nairobi is in her first trimester. Every weekday she wakes up and takes breakfast, which comprises of tea and bread before rushing out to catch a matatu to work. This is her first pregnancy and she is excited to be a mother. Pascal has a busy schedule working as an office assistant in a wholesale shop that sells beauty products. After a busy day she’s normally exhausted and barely has time to go to the supermarkets to buy fresh vegetables and fruits. She usually buys sukumawiki or cabbages from the street vendors before rushing to catch a matatu home.
Occasionally she also buys beef from the local butchery. Pascal is least concerned if her food is organic or not. Her aim is to eat a balanced diet, which is beneficial for her health and the baby’s development. Recently her mother advised her to eat traditional foods, which are highly nutritious. There are no indigenous foods sold in her estate, she realized that they are expensive and not readily available like sukumawiki and cabbages. Most market vendors tell her that indigenous foods like managu, kunde, sweet potatoes and arrow roots are seasonal and the demand is high. So far she has not consulted a nutritionist regarding her diet; however she’s aware of the importance of eating nutritious food for the growth and development of her unborn child.
Maureen Awiti, a mother of three, feeds her family on indigenous foods regularly. She is a businesswoman who lives and works in Nairobi. During her first pregnancy she developed hypertension and the doctor advised her to eat a diet that mainly consisted of indigenous foods. Maureen saw a big change and since then she has never looked back. What started, as a doctor’s advice became a lifestyle that she adheres to up to today. Her health also greatly improved and she no longer suffers from hypertension
An expectant mother should feed on highly nutritious foods. The baby’s growth and development is determined by what the mother eats. Organic foods and indigenous foods are rich in nutrients and should be the best choice for a pregnant mother.
Dr. Mary Abukutsa, a Professor of horticulture in Jomo Kenyatta University, says that Organic foods are those produced using organic products and without synthetic chemicals. These include fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy products and meat. In Kenya, the government has not set guidelines of labeling agricultural products as to whether they are organic or not. When we buy vegetables, fruits and meat products from the market, we can’t determine if chemicals were used in the production or not. Countries like USA and other European countries have set up strict guidelines for organic certification on all animal and crops products. Organic farming is encouraged in these countries because it is beneficial for the environment conservation.
Dr Abukutsa also describes indigenous foods as those foods that have their natural home in a particular area for example, African indigenous foods, Aborigine indigenous foods and others. The centre of origin is always in a particular region. Most indigenous food plants especially from Africa are grown organically with minimal or no use of chemical fertilizers.
African indigenous foods are the best for expectant mothers. They have high nutritive value and are normally grown organically therefore they have very little chemical residues that can harm the pregnant mother and unborn baby. They also have high contents of anti oxidants that minimize the development of diet related diseases like hypertension, diabetes and cancer. They should be eaten on regular basis, including before, during and after pregnancy.
Agnes Sitati, a senior Nutrition Officer in Kenyatta National Hospital says that it is imperative for an expectant mother to eat organic food and indigenous foods. This is because high levels of nutrients in these foods are very important for the unborn baby. “All pregnant women need nutrition counseling so that they can be advised on their diet choice depending on what is locally available,” Agnes said. Due to pregnancies sometimes mothers develop allergies on certain foods and a nutritionist can best advice without compromising the importance of healthy eating. Organic foods are free from synthetic chemicals and fertilizers, which are used on the crop and the soil. “Studies show that fetuses and young children may be harmed by exposure to even low levels of pesticides,” said Agnes. It is important to note that organic foods are not genetically altered and they are therefore nutritious for a healthy mother and baby. Also, compared to other genetically modified foods, organic food tastes better.
Many expectant mothers from all regions in Kenya have being referred to the Kenyatta National Hospital because of nutrition related complications during pregnancy. Agnes asserts that most pregnant women are ignorant on the importance of eating organic and indigenous foods for a healthy pregnancy. She always advises them on diet guidelines, which will benefit the baby’s development. There are nutrients that should be taken in bigger portions and organic foods are the best choice. For instance the fetus obtains calcium from the mother to make bones. Calcium rich products are from dairy products, red meat, green leafy vegetables and omena (small fish). Indigenous and organic foods are also rich in fibre for example whole grain bread, bananas, pawpaws, ripe mangoes, pumpkin leaves, arrowroots and vegetables. Unlike processed foods fiber facilitates faster absorption of nutrients and is helpful in food digestion. During pregnancy the baby grows and pushes against the mother’s digestive system thus causing constipation.
The public should be sensitized on the high nutritive value of traditional foods like managu. The traditional vegetable is rich in iron, which is nutritious for expectant mothers and lactating mothers. Iron helps in the manufacture of blood for the baby and mother because during pregnancy the mother’s blood increases by almost 50%. According to United Nations, approximately 60% of pregnant women have anemia globally. Managu can also be added in the weaning food for babies. Other indigenous vegetables are African eggplant, cowpea, kunde, terere or mchicha.
Before pregnancy women should take a daily dose of folic acid and this should continue during pregnancy too. Folic acid helps in cells growth for both the mother and the baby. It is found in spinach, lentils, peas, oranges and brocolli. If you cant access these vegetables you can consult your doctor to take folic acid as a multivitamin.
Agnes emphasizes that there are certain foods expectant mothers should avoid, for instance, raw or undercooked meat, alcohol, caffeine and processed foods. These are harmful to the baby and can lead to a premature birth. Indigenous foods thrive well in Kenya’s climatic conditions. With the increase of lifestyle diseases in the society, there is a rising demand for traditional foods like sweet potatoes, yams, legumes and others.
There are instances when some women experience food cravings. Agnes attributes this to minerals deficiency, she advices that they should avoid eating too much of certain foods as it is unhealthy. For example, some mothers crave for stones or soil, which is caused by iron deficiency.
Expectant mothers should take multivitamins after consulting with the doctor. This is because the developing baby consumes a lot of nutrients from the mother.
Healthy eating and breast-feeding
Throughout history, mothers have known certain foods that support milk production for breast-feeding. Lactogenic foods refer to foods that influence milk production. The most important thing for mothers is to eat a balanced diet, drink water and liquids. Expectant mothers should also eat food that is easy to digest. In some instances stress causes low levels of milk production. It is imperative for a lactating mother to avoid stress and focus on the baby’s welfare.
According to Dr. Mary Abukutsa, Lactogenic foods support lactation by providing adequate nutrients, like calories, proteins, vitamins and minerals. They also provide substances that stimulate milk production. These substances include; phytoestrogen, natural plant sedatives, plant sterols, saponins and tryptophan.
Lactogenic foods requirements vary with individuals. If a mother is not experiencing low milk production she should not take Lactogenic foods as this will lead to over production and may lead to diseases like mastitis.
Different communities in Africa have their own lactogenic foods. The most common is chicken soup.
Vegetables: Fennel, carrot, beet, turmeric, dark green leafy vegetables, stinging nettle and spider plant (sagaa)
Grains and legumes: Oats, millet porridge, barley, rice, lentils, beans, kidney beans (njahi).
Nuts: Almonds, cashews, macadamia nuts (preferably raw)
Oil and fats: Olive oil, coconut oil. Healthy fats play a part in cellular and neutral metabolism
Why are Kenyans not eating indigenous foods?
Dr. Mary Abukutsa mentions that there is need for paradigm shift to focus on indigenous foods not just for expectant mothers but also for all Kenyans. She cites that there are negative attitudes by consumers, producers and policy makers on traditional foods. There is inadequate production by farmers and those who are involved it is done on small-scale level. Very few Kenyans have enough information on their advantages and values. In fact many come to appreciate the value after they get terminally ill and the doctors advice them to eat indigenous foods and avoid processed foods.
Climate change has also played a big role in terms of low production. Climate change causes loss of biodiversity and thus might lead to extinction of indigenous foods if action is not taken. In recent years, policy makers have put more focus on commercial crops than indigenous crops. This frustrates potential farmers who want to plant indigenous crops in large scale. There is also a need for training and capacity building to emphasize on the use of indigenous foods. This should be done in schools so that children grow up knowing the values. There is also lack of technical information on production and preparation of indigenous foods. It is no wonder that indigenous foods are still produced as they used to be produced in the olden days. With increase in population there is increased demand for traditional foods. The concerned stakeholders should look into the matter.
Dr. Mary and Agnes both concur that indigenous foods should be eaten before, during and after pregnancy but normally pregnant and lactating mothers would require relatively higher quantities
Good nutrition builds and protects the unborn baby. And pregnant women who are well nourished and healthy will more likely have healthy babies.
Examples of African indigenous foods
Vegetables: African nightshade (managu), Spideplant (sagaa), Vegetable amaranths (mchicha/terere), African kale, vine spinach, slenser leaf
Fruits: Watermelon, Horned melon, Fig tree, Guava, Loquat
Grains: Millets (Wimbi), Sorghum, African rice
Legumes: Cowpea, Kidney beans (Njahi)
Root crops: Yams, Sweet potatoes, arrow roots (nduma)
Oil crops: Bambara nuts, Ground nuts, sesame