Health impact of ultra-processed foods in Africa

Ultra-processed foods make up more than half the average diet in developed and most developing nations. [iStockphoto]

Jabari,16, a student living in the city, navigates a daily routine of schoolwork, video games and socialising with friends.

However, beneath his seemingly normal life, there is an issue with his health: his diet is filled with ultra-processed foods.

This became a point of concern after Jabari started experiencing unexplained weakness, affecting school performance and overall energy levels. This made his parents concerned about his health and sought medical advice, which revealed high cholesterol and triglyceride levels—an alarming discovery for a young person. 

Jabari’s story illustrates a broader crisis unfolding across Africa, where rapid urbanisation and economic shifts have altered dietary habits. While appealing, the convenience of processed foods is contributing to a worrying rise in cardiometabolic diseases such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

This dietary trend, characterised by increased consumption of fast food and packaged snacks, poses a public health challenge that threatens to undermine strides made in health advancements in Africa.

Prompted by Jabari’s medical results, his family embarked on a journey to transform their dietary habits. They replaced ultra-processed snacks and fast foods with whole, minimally processed alternatives rich in nutrients.

This shift went beyond simply replacing unhealthy items with healthier options; it entailed a comprehensive lifestyle change. The family started incorporating a variety of locally available fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins into their diet. They moved away from the appeal of junk food to sustainable, and healthy eating habits. Despite these positive changes, another layer of Jabari’s health issue surfaced — a vitamin D deficiency, exacerbated by his predominantly indoor lifestyle.

This highlighted another critical aspect of modern urban living: limited exposure to natural sunlight, which is essential for the synthesis of vitamin D – a critically important micronutrient - in the body. Jabari’s family introduced supplements into his regimen, to restore his vitality and support his body’s needs.

Jabari’s experience sheds light on urgent need for a comprehensive approach to tackle the diet-related health crisis in Africa. Governments and health policymakers must prioritise the development of public health campaigns that educate the population about the risks associated with poor dietary choices. There is a pressing need for stringent regulations on food safety, quality, and labelling to ensure that consumers are well-informed and protected from the adverse effects of ultra-processed foods.

Schools and community centres should become focal points for dietary education, providing platforms for sharing knowledge about nutrition and healthy eating habits. Programs that promote physical activity should also be integrated into educational curriculums to improve physical health and counteract the sedentary tendencies that are becoming prevalent due to urbanisation. The private sector also plays an important role. Food manufacturers and retailers can contribute to public health by reducing the sugar, fat, and salt content in their products and offering healthy alternatives.

Collaborative efforts between governments and the private sector can lead to innovations in food processing and retailing that prioritise consumer health without compromising taste or profits.  However, addressing ultra-processed foods alone is not enough. Public health strategies must include not only macro-nutrient guidelines but also micronutrient availability to combat deficiencies that are subtler but no less damaging.

Ultimately, Jabari’s story and his family’s proactive adjustments to their lifestyle choices highlight a critical pathway that others can follow. People in Africa also need to create consumer movements to protect themselves from unhealthy food by advocating clearer markings on food, controls on how unhealthy foods are advertised, and tax regimes that require manufacturers of ultra-processed foods to finance health more.

The writers work at Amref Health Africa in Kenya