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World Food Day: Common eating mistakes to avoid


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Eating is something we learned to do the minute we were born and yet, it can take a lifetime to get it just right. Getting it wrong can cause anything from indigestion, to a toothache to posing a threat your life. Here is a list of habits to avoid and get you eating right

Food: the most banal topic you probably have had with anyone in a long time. Food is the fuel that keeps cells alive and the human body by extension. That much you know

What you may not know is the how, when and why you should relate with food. What is the right amount to eat? How often should you eat? In what combinations is food harmful or beneficial?

This conversation wouldn’t have made much sense in Stone Age. I mean, those guys didn’t have 8-to-5 jobs and didn’t operate under capitalism.

As a result, the average modern human finds themselves in a constant axis of work and private lives devoid of planned nutrition. The result has been a myriad problems ranging from obesity to absence of balance between mind, body and soul.

By the time you are done reading this you will have learnt valuable lessons.

The following are common mistakes on food and the discipline everyone needs to adhere to for a healthier life.

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1. Not taking breakfast seriously

What reasons would you have to skip breakfast? Running late for work? Or perhaps you just believe breakfast is not that important?

You may have already heard that breakfast is the most important meal in a day. What you might not know is that, just like every other meal of the day, a healthy breakfast consists of 50 per cent vegetables and that proteins, starch and fruits should equally share the other 50 per cent.

“If you are fond of skipping breakfast, you need to include it in your schedule. It should be the first thing you do before leaving for work,” says Dr Njoki Fernandez, a gynaecologist and wellness specialist.

Skipping breakfast, Dr Fernandez says, will leave one hungry and susceptible to eating as and when they find food.

“These are the people who eat anything and everything at the office. The result is that they eat unhealthy meals: fast food high in sugar and fat,” Dr Fernandez says.

It is true, she says, that one should eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a queen and supper like a pauper.

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2. Eating late in the night

How late is too late for supper?

According to Kate Kibara, a health, nutrition and wellness coach, supper (the last balanced meal of the day) is best had at 6pm.

“Six is the most ideal time for supper. If one cannot make it to eat supper at 6pm, they should make sure that by 7pm latest they have had supper,” Kate says.

Taking supper at 9pm or 10pm (or even later), Kibara says, can cause obesity, bloating or gaseousness, or discomfort during the night. “When you eat late your body will likely convert the food into fat hence the obesity,” she adds.

Eating early – as recommended – gives your body at least two hours to break down the food before you go to sleep. After supper, Kate says, one can take herbal tea or warm water, “but not food.”

3. Eating too quickly

As if slurping food is not bad enough, right? However, this is not about etiquette and table manners.

According to nutritionist Gladys Mugambi, the current focal person for Scaling Up Nutrition, wolfing down food is a habit that can not only choke one to death but also prevent one from deriving nutrients from the meal.

“Digestion starts in the mouth when we chew and mix food with the saliva. Chewing should take time to make sure that every bit of food is crushed finely and mixed with the saliva. Eating too fast skips this first stage – crucial in digestion,” Gladys explains.

According to experts at the Ohio State University, you should chew softer foods 5-10 times, and more dense foods (meats/vegetables) up to 30 times before swallowing.

Eating too fast also causes hiccups as the stomach responds by producing too much acid, causing gaseousness and constant belching. This may not be a health problem but it can be really uncomfortable and embarassing.

4. Keeping tempting foods around

It is a no-brainer that snacking and eating junk (fatty and sugary) foods will make you obese. Such a diet will also cause a myriad of non-communicable diseases like diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease, says Dr Theo Wangata, a physician.

Sugary and fatty foods are also highly addictive, observes Dr Wangata. Bouts of cravings eventually get one to gain so much weight that leaves them uncomfortable, socially and physically.

But the very foods that cause us harm are prepared and packaged to hook us into munching them. So what’s the best way to keep tempation away? Avoid stocking your home, office locker or car with junk food. Keep them out of sight and, hopefully, they will stay out of mind.

5. ‘Drinking’ fruits

Technology has made it easy for us to process food domestically. Juicing fruits is one such technique that many a household engage in. Extracting the juice from fruits is not bad – “if done not so often,” says Gladys, the nutritionist.

Fruits, she says, should be eaten. “Eating fruits gives you the nutrients in the juice and the roughage in the matrix of the fruit’s flesh.”

Besides, 250mls of regular orange juice contains over 140 calories, the same in three whole oranges. You can easily down a 250ml bottle of juice in one sitting but eating three whole oranges can be quite a task.

For growing children, eating fruits also aids with strengthening teeth as they develop.

6. Drinking water in the middle of a meal

According to Kibara, one should drink water (the temperature of the water does not matter) about 20 minutes before or after a meal.

There is only one instance that warm water is preferable. “In the morning when you wake up, warm water is good to jumpstart your system,” Kate says.

Drinking water while eating dilutes digestive enzymes and hence the food is not properly digested along the alimentary canal (from mouth to anus), Kate says.

Still, by the end of the 24-hour daily cycle an adult human should have drank about two litres of water.

7. Eating ‘everything’ to avoid wastage

Yes, we live in Africa, and maybe famine and drought have shaped much of our thinking on food.

“Food should never be wasted” is a clarion call that you may be familiar with.

As a result, you feel devastating pain when you see food thrown away. In your household, you make sure you clear everything on your plate plus your child’s leftovers without putting into consideration the amount of food you have eaten.

What are the likely repercussions?

“Obesity, bloating, discomfort, indigestion and in some cases constipation,” says Kepha Nyanumba, a consultant nutritionist.

Instead of clearing everything, you may want to serve food in smaller, controlled portions and store the extras in a refrigerator for a later meal. Or measure and cook precisely the amount of food your household consumes per sitting.

8. Eating raw, stale or random herbs, spices and additives

You should often try and cook spices and additives with food – especially when it is a spice you have little knowledge about.

Dr Fernandez says some spices can be used on food without being cooked. “Like salt and sugar. These don’t need to be cooked,” she says. Others like mchuzi mixes should be cooked with food. Dried herbs should be added early in cooking to ensure their flavours and benefits are fully released.

Still, essential oils evaporate very quickly from dried herbs and spices so avoid using spices that have overstayed in your cupboard and try to use fresh herbs and spices that you have ground yourself. Always check expiry dates and read instructions on every spice packaging.

Spices like turmeric shouldn’t just be thrown into food. Turmeric must be paired with black pepper to allow the absorption of curcumin (found in turmeric).

9. Eating too much starch

A proper meal should consist of 50 per cent vegetables with the remaining half equally shared between proteins, starch and fruits. It’s easy to break this rule when you don’t think nutritionally but consider your palette more. For example, many people like to eat ugali with a proportionate amount of ‘wet’ accompaniment -- automatically this means the other half of the plate is split between veggies and a protein, which is wrong.

Starch may be the most readily available food type at our market places and shops but you should always strive to make it a balanced diet, says Nyanumba.

10. Eating out often

Homemade meals are the best way to account for what you eat. Dr Lyudmilla Shchukina is an obesity specialist.

She says: “When people go out to eat they will be eating food whose nutrient makeup they are not in charge of.”

Eating out also has the disadvantage of influencing one’s diet choices.

“Food is social. That is why if you are in a restaurant with a friend and they order fries, her decision is likely going to influence yours. If you were dieting, you then easily let down your guard,” says Dr Shchukina.

11. Emotional/Mindless eating

When things don’t go your way and you resort to food for gratification, you are an emotional eater, says Dr Lincoln Khasakhala, a clinical psychologist at CAPRE health clinic.

“Emotional eating is not informed by need: emotional eaters are not influenced by hunger. It is a way for them to find some satisfaction; a brief feel-good moment that makes them overcome the pain of not getting what they wanted,” Dr Khasakhala says.

As such, emotional eaters will often be battling obesity and eating disorders such as bulimia.

“If you suspect that you suffer from emotional eating you need psychological assessment. A positive diagnosis will be followed by clinical sessions to get your eating behaviour under control,” says Dr Khasakhala.

Eating while distracted (like when driving, watching TV or playing games) can also cause you to overeat as you may end up ignoring cues or eating more than one serving, especially when you’re eating straight out of the bag.

12. Fasting to lose weight

There is often a panic to lose weight upon becoming aware of one’s own excess weight and the growing waistline.

The panic causes some to resort to radical weight loss methods, chief among them, starving or fasting out main meals.

“In the long run this is counterintuitive. You end up gaining weight instead of losing it,” says Dr Shchukina.

Why, you may ask? “Because when you starve yourself, in your next meal you will most likely overeat. And your body will have detected that you are fasting: therefore it will store more fat from what you eat than before,” Dr Shchukina adds.

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