‘Eating healthy can increase chances of surviving COVID-19’

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‘Eating healthy can increase chances of surviving COVID-19’

Dr. Jerome Mafeni, is the MD/Chief Executive Officer of Mafeni Pedodent Hospitals and Healthcare Limited, Abuja. He has held several senior positions in the public health system in Nigeria and other parts of Africa. Currently he is a director with the Network for Health Equity and Development (NHED), which is championing the policy campaign for the elimination of trans fat from Nigerian food.

There have been reports that people with pre-existing medical conditions do get complications if they contact COVID-19, please explain?

Anybody can contract COVID-19. However, for many persons, they are able to deal with the effects of the infection successfully and recover.  However, for those who for one reason or another have a health condition that they were already challenged with, the additional burden of the COVID-19 infection affects them unduly, limiting their chances of coping successfully.  Such conditions would include those that reduce their immunity to infection such as HIV/AIDS, autoimmune diseases, poorly controlled diabetes, and cancers.  Other potential health challenges will be pre-existing respiratory illnesses such as asthma, TB, obstructive lung diseases, etc.  Finally, people with cardiovascular challenges such as hypertension, coronary heart diseases, heart failure are also particularly susceptible as their ability to carry oxygen around the body successfully is compromised.  These conditions tend to be common among the elderly, which is why they are the most susceptible to COVID-19.

What are those lifestyles that compromise the cardiovascular system and what are the pre-emptive actions?

Sedentary lifestyles, poor diets and eating habits that lead to obesity, smoking and excessive alcohol consumption are some of the risk factors that compromise the cardiovascular system. Daily exercise for at least 30minutes a day, eating regularly and eating healthy foods free of excessive carbohydrates and fats, stopping smoking and limiting alcohol consumption are key pre-emptive actions that individuals can take to protect their health.  Annual medical checkups are also another very good strategy.

What are trans-fatty acids and how dangerous are?

Trans fat, or trans-fatty acids, are unsaturated fatty acids that come from either natural or industrial sources. Naturally occurring trans-fat come from ruminants (cows and sheep). Industrially produced trans-fat are formed in an industrial process that adds hydrogen to vegetable oil, converting the liquid into a solid, resulting in “partially hydrogenated” oil (PHO).

Approximately 540,000 deaths each year can be attributed to intake of industrially produced trans-fatty acids. High trans-fat intake increases the risk of death from any cause by 34%, coronary heart disease deaths by 28%, and coronary heart disease by 21%. This is likely due to the effect on lipid levels: trans-fat increases LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels while lowering HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels. Trans-fat has no known health benefits.

Are there particular foods Nigerians must be wary?

Generally, foods from fast-food establishments tend to have high contents of trans-fats.  Others will include sweets and confectioneries, and bakery products.  Fried foods sold by street vendors are another potential source of high trans-fat content.

Are there local foods that contain trans fats?

Meat from cattle, goats and sheep tend to have trans fats in varying degrees.  However, because there is a limit to how much meat an individual can consume, this tends not to cause so much damage.  Foods such as buns (puff-puff), akara, yam and plantains that are fried by roadside vendors that re-use the frying oils repeatedly will contain significant amounts of trans fats that could pose danger to health.

If trans fats are so bad, why are manufacturers using them?

The big multinational food products manufacturers have commenced the processes of removing trans fats from their products or limiting their concentration to globally acceptable limits.  The bigger challenge is with the smaller manufacturers and food vendors that need to produce foods in large quantities quickly on a daily basis.  They use oils containing high levels of industrially produced trans fats because they presumed this enabled them to achieve deep frying temperatures and ability to deliver greater crispiness and flavour to their food products.  A target has been set for the elimination of Trans-fats from the food supply of all countries by 2023.

Are there diseases that consumers of trans fats are predisposed to, that can make them more vulnerable to dying when they contract COVID-19?

Consumers of high quantities of foods with high trans fatty acid content are generally prone to several non-communicable diseases such as heart disease, hypertension, stroke, diabetes, obesity and cancers.  As mentioned earlier, these make persons who simultaneously contract COVID19 to be more likely to suffer severe consequences and complications.

NAFDAC recently asked for public input into its Draft Oils and Fats Regulations, which includes limiting trans-fats in foods. How far has the agency progressed?

NAFDAC has received comments on the two draft regulations mentioned and are in the process of compiling them to produce improved draft regulations for approval by the NAFDAC board. Following the board approval, the regulations will be sent to the office of the Attorney General of the Federation for official gazetting into law.

What is your advice to NAFDAC on the issue of trans-fat regulations as the entire world combat the COVID-19 pandemic?

NAFDAC should not use the excuse of the pandemic to delay further work on the completion and approval of the draft regulations but expedite all actions using online technologies and social distancing methodologies to obtain rapid board approval for the regulations.  These regulations are needed now more than ever, so that persons under lockdown at home do not fall into the temptation of increasing their consumption of foods high in trans-fats.

What would you advise Nigerians to be eating at this time of COVID-19 to remain healthy?

Eat naturally processed foods with high fibre contents, including consumption of vegetables, fruits and nuts.  They should avoid comfort eating and binging on fast-foods that could lead to excessive weight gain.

‘Eating healthy can increase chances of surviving COVID-19’

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