Collins Akanno, is a community nutritionist and chairman, Nutrition Society of Nigeria, Lagos State Chapter. In this interview with Anthonia Obokoh, he spoke about the relationship between nutrition and various facets of health, from addressing common deficiencies to preventing chronic diseases, managing weight, and nurturing mental well-being. Expcerts:
How does nutrition play in promoting overall health and well-being?
As the saying goes, “We are what we eat” This is not just a cliché; it is a scientific truth. Nutrition is essentially the cornerstone of our well-being, influencing our growth, development, overall health and survival. I mean, basic sciences popular mnemonic, “MR NIGER D”, demonstrates that nutrition – the ability to obtain food and derive nourishment from it, represented by the ’ N’ is the third characteristic of any living being. If one is not nourished, the cells, tissues, organs, and bodily systems suffer from nutrient deficiency and eventually die.
How can one address common nutritional deficiencies that may be prevalent in Nigeria?
Addressing prevalent nutritional deficiencies in Nigeria requires a multifaceted approach. Firstly, there’s the vital role of nutrition education. Knowledge about nutrient-dense foods and their health benefits is just as important as eating these foods.
Addressing knowledge gaps early on is essential to prevent misinformation and disinformation. Once armed with accurate information, individuals need avenues to access these nutrient-dense foods. Establishing low-cost home gardens for cultivating fruits and vegetables ensures a local supply of essential vitamins and minerals.
Livestock rearing, combined with bulk food purchases, addresses economic challenges and helps combat issues like protein energy malnutrition prevalent in children.
Effective school feeding programmes as well ensure children are not predisposed to nutritional deficiencies. Also, knowledge of the right cooking methods largely enables nutrient preservation as well.
How does nutrition contribute to preventing chronic diseases, and are there specific dietary recommendations for disease prevention?
Nutrition plays a pivotal role in preventing chronic diseases by influencing factors like inflammation, oxidative stress, and overall immune function.
Adopting a diet rich in antioxidants, Omega-3 fatty acids, and plant-based foods can significantly contribute to disease prevention as several research findings stand as evidence of this. Although specific recommendations and predisposing factors may vary, generally, minimising processed foods, reducing salt and sugar intake, and emphasizing whole, nutrient-dense foods form a solid foundation for preventative nutrition.
In general, nutrient-dense foods include fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, nuts and seeds, beans and legumes, and heart-healthy fats (e.g. avocado).
In your opinion, what are the key components of a healthy eating pattern, and how can individuals incorporate them into their daily lives?
I believe that a healthy eating pattern includes a balanced intake of macronutrients and micronutrients. Eat whole grains, lean proteins, fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats.
Portion control is critical to avoiding the triple burden of malnutrition: undernutrition seen as stunting and wasting (from eating less than is needed), over- nutrition seen as overweight and obesity (from eating more than is needed), and hidden hunger also called micronutrient deficiencies (from poor intake and absorption of vitamins and minerals such as iron, zinc, and iodine).
Healthy eating components can be incorporated into your daily life by carefully planning meals, cooking at home, and gradually introducing new, nutritious foods into your diet.
Consistency is essential for developing and maintaining a habit of eating well.
Can you discuss the link between nutrition and mental health, including any specific nutrients that play a crucial role in cognitive function and mood regulation?
The complex relationship between nutrition and mental health cannot be overstated. Nutrients such as Omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, and antioxidants are essential for cognitive function and mood regulation. Omega-3 fatty acids found in nuts such as walnuts, for example, promote brain health, whereas B vitamins, which are abundant in most of our local leafy greens, support neurotransmitter function in the brain, spinal cord and nerves.
A diet high in these nutrients, combined with adequate hydration (water consumption) and a healthy eating pattern, will have a positive impact on overall mental health.
What advice do you have for individuals seeking weight management through nutrition, and how can one achieve a healthy weight sustainably?
First and foremost, achieving and maintaining a healthy weight is a commendable lifestyle goal. However, it requires a strong commitment to mindful eating and disciplined lifestyle choices.
Eat whole, nutrient-dense foods, limit portion sizes, and stay hydrated. Avoid extreme diets and instead focus on long-term changes that are consistent with your preferences and needs.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to accomplishing this. It is tailored to different bodies and daily activities. Regular physical activity, combined with a nutrient-dense diet, is essential for effective weight management.
It is critical to discuss the strategies that work best for you with a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN), of which there are several at the Nutrition Society of Nigeria.
Are there particular nutritional considerations for different life stages, such as childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and senior years?
Yes! Nutritional needs change throughout life. As nutrition professionals, we emphasise nutrient-dense foods for growth in children. An adequate and varied diet (having several food groups) can effectively help with hormonal changes during adolescence.
Adulthood necessitates keeping a healthy weight and addressing specific health concerns which one learns about through regular health check-ups.
In your senior years, focus on nutrients for bone health, heart health, and cognitive function. Regular check-ups and changes to dietary habits ensure nutritional adequacy at all life stages.
Can you share practical tips for creating and maintaining healthy eating habits, considering the challenges of modern lifestyles?
Although modern lifestyles present challenges, it is possible to develop healthy eating habits (food relationships). Do you have any of the following types of food relationships below?
Convenience – you eat foods that are easily accessible (grab and go); no serious commitments, no planning and can’t be bothered.
Abusive – you eat anything and everything you come across on the” sea-food diet”
Restrictive – consume foods with a fear factor, especially with food neophobia.
Tender Loving and Caring means carefully choosing and eating nutrient-dense foods always for nourishment rather than hunger control.
Of all the above, the TLC is the best and healthiest choice. So, plan your meals ahead of time, include a variety of foods, and prioritise home-cooked meals. Choose nutrient-dense snacks, stay hydrated, and moderate portion sizes. Avoid or limit processed foods and sugary beverages. Balance indulgences with overall healthy choices help to create a more sustainable approach.
Can you share your educational background and professional experience in the field of nutrition?
I have a bachelor’s degree in Nutrition and Dietetics from Imo State University. A certificate in Global Health Project Management from the University of Washington’s Department of Global Health, as well as a master’s certificate in Programming for Infant and Young Child Feeding from Cornell Nutrition Works and UNICEF [in collaboration with Cornell University].
My professional experience includes 7 years of community nutrition, where I worked with a variety of populations to promote health and wellness through nutrition advocacy, education, counselling, and programme development. I am passionate about translating scientific knowledge into practical advice to help people make informed decisions about their health, particularly in terms of nutrition.
What inspired you to pursue a career in nutrition, and how has your passion evolved?
My journey into the world of nutrition was sparked by a deep-seated desire to make a tangible difference in people’s lives. Growing up, I witnessed firsthand the profound impact that access to proper nutrition can have on individuals and communities. This realization ignited a passion within me to pursue a career dedicated to improving nutrition outcomes and promoting health equity.
Over time, my passion for nutrition has evolved into a multifaceted commitment to leveraging digital technology, community initiatives, and partnerships for nutrition advocacy and education. Founding Diet234.com allowed me to combine my expertise in nutrition assessment and education with my entrepreneurial spirit, providing a platform for personalized nutrition coaching and tele-nutrition services.
As a community nutritionist, I have had the privilege of delivering engaging presentations and building an online community of health enthusiasts, fostering dialogue and dispelling misconceptions surrounding nutrition. The challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic further fuelled my determination to address food insecurity through initiatives like Communeating, earning recognition as a Beating Corona Hero.
Leading the Nutrition Society of Nigeria for Lagos State has been instrumental in my leadership journey, allowing me to collaborate with professionals and design integrated programs that advance nutrition education and healthy eating habits within communities.
My passion for nutrition continues to drive me to shape the landscape of health and wellness, guided by purpose and fuelled by a relentless commitment to making a positive impact.