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Health Lessons from International Cuisines: Africa


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healthy african recipes, healthy African dishes
Millet is one of the staple foods of healthy African dishes. istock.com/manueladreams

Most researchers agree that early Paleolithic humans lived in Africa. It has even been suggested that the bulk of our evolution as homo sapiens occurred in Africa, where our biological needs for certain nutrients such as omega-3 fats, vitamins A and D, and minerals like iron and zinc were established.

Ironically, however, the ‘traditional African diet’ I’m examining today is about as far from what we could call a ‘Paleo diet’ as you can get. That’s because most traditional African meals are based heavily on cereal grains, dairy, legumes, and very little meat.

Is traditional African cuisine the anti-Paleo diet?Tweet This

You might wonder whether it’s even a good idea to look to an African dietary pattern for health lessons. After all, they have notoriously low life expectancies, and although infectious diseases like malaria and HIV/AIDS are by far the largest contributors to poor health in Africa, non-communicable diseases such as hypertension and heart disease are on the rise. (1) But the rural regions of Africa actually provide a great example of how a nourishing whole foods diet can be created even in less-than ideal conditions, and, ultimately, demonstrate how truly adaptable humans are.

Clearly, Africa is a huge continent with a great deal of dietary variation, but there are a few dietary trends that are common throughout many parts of Africa. By and large, the food staples in rural sub-Saharan villages are agriculturally based, with millet, sorghum, maize, cassava, and dairy featuring prominently in the diets of these people. (2, 3) And in the first half of the 20th century, Dr. Weston A. Price found that most traditional African populations exhibited fairly robust health, despite many of their diets being based primarily on cereal grains. (In fact, the healthiest population Dr. Price found, the Dinkas people, had a diet consisting primarily of fish and cereal grains.)

A Diet Based on Grains

Many regions of Africa rely on grains as their dietary staple, most often sorghum, maize, or millet. Western grain-based diets haven’t worked out so well, but most rural parts of Africa have avoided the obesity, heart disease, and diabetes that plague our grain-based society. How do they make grains an acceptable dietary staple?

First off, you’ll notice that none of the staple grains listed are gluten-containing. Wheat is certainly consumed in some areas, but gluten-free grains are consumed much more commonly. However, the key factor to the quality of these grain-heavy diets lies in their preparation methods, including soaking and fermenting. Many of these traditional practices that proponents of the ancestral health movement are trying to re-introduce never went out of style in Africa. Almost invariably, Africans go through extensive preparations before consuming grains, and this has a huge impact on nutrient availability and digestibility. (4)

For people just starting out on a grain-free diet, the concept of ‘anti-nutrients’ in grains and legumes can seem nebulous and unscientific. Conventional sources of dietary information rarely or never mention these significant caveats to the ‘healthy whole grain’ paradigm. But once you start reading peer-reviewed research papers, the topic of phytates, tannins, and other anti-nutrients actually pops up a lot.

For example, a 1997 paper titled Lactic fermented foods in Africa and their benefits concluded that the traditional practice of fermenting grains reduces the amount of tannins and phytic acid present, thus increasing the availability of protein, iron, other minerals, and overall calories. One study shows that fermentation of millet completely eliminates phytic acid and amylase inhibitors, and another shows that fermentation markedly reduces those components in sorghum. In regions where malnutrition is common, especially among young children, fermentation of grains is a vitally necessary step.

Appreciation for Healthy Fats

For many African communities who subsist on a largely plant-based diet, dairy is an important source of fat-soluble vitamins and other nutrients that are difficult to get elsewhere. Sudan in particular prizes dairy, which has been a main component of the Sudanese diet for thousands of years. (5)

In Sudan, milk is usually fermented to make it easier to extract the butterfat, which is then turned into ghee. (Funnily enough, the container in which the ghee is stored is called a butta.) It’s interesting to note that the milk loses its value once the butterfat is extracted; the greatest care is taken not to spill any whole milk, but once the butter is removed, the remaining fermented skim milk is often fed to the animals or just tossed on the ground.

Red palm oil is also a staple fat source, particularly in West Africa. Red palm oil contains a high proportion of saturated fat, as well as vitamin E, beta-carotene, and other antioxidants. (6) The habit of consuming red palm oil or other fats with stews and other meals aids the absorption of nutrients.

Gut Bacteria

Although the conventional recommendation to consume ridiculous quantities of dietary fiber is off the mark, fiber is still important for cultivating healthy gut bacteria. One interesting study from 2010 compared the intestinal flora of two groups of children – one from Burkina Faso, and the other from Italy – and concluded that the high-fiber diet of the African children resulted in a richer and more diverse population of intestinal flora.

The diet of the African children consisted primarily of millet, sorghum, black-eyed peas, some local vegetables, mango, papaya, shea butter, occasional chicken or termites, and breast milk for those aged 2 or younger. The children from Italy ate what the researchers called a ‘typical Western diet.’

Researchers found that the ratio of Firmicutes to Bacteroidetes was significantly different between the two groups. The European children had about 50% Firmicutes and 25% Bacteroidetes, while the African children had about 12% and 75%, respectively. This is noteworthy because the ratio of Firmicutes to Bacteroidetes is believed by some researchers to be a risk factor for obesity.

It’s also interesting to note that the bacteria of the African children seem to have adapted to their high-fiber diet. Just as the gut bacteria of the Japanese uniquely enable them to digest seaweed, the gut bacteria of the children from Burkina Faso are more able to digest the polysaccharides and cellulose from their plant-heavy diet. Levels of propionate and butyrate – two types of short-chain fatty acids produced by intestinal flora – were almost four times higher in the samples from Africa than the samples from Italy. This adaptation enables the African children to derive more nutrition from a diet that might not be ‘ideal.’


I think that traditional African cuisine is a good reminder to not label foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Many people, especially in our world of broken metabolisms and damaged guts, do better without grains, but grains have still supported many communities without deleterious health effects. However, it’s also important to not separate the food from the preparation method. A gluten free muffin made from sorghum flour in the frozen section of Whole Foods is most certainly not the same food as traditionally fermented sorghum gruel.

The different African diets also remind us once again that humans are extraordinarily adaptable, and our food tolerances depend heavily on the environment we grew up in, the environment our ancestors lived in, and the composition of our intestinal flora.

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Join the conversation

  1. Besides being native (with the “good parasites”), which helps with digestion, ancestor diets were not laden with GMO, gluten, heavy metals and sugar. I think that if we ate grains that are ancient, we wouldn’t have such health problems that we do.

  2. Hello all!

    I don’t consume any grains on a daily basis and every time I do it either leads to fruit binging or ice cream binging. I’m an O Blood Type Non-Secretor… the oldest on the planet… and grains just don’t work for me as I’m working to rebuild my gut and recovery from severe mood disorders. Perhaps after I’m have long term traction feeling like “the man” way more than I do now I’d consider adding in other foods like properly prepared grains then.

    I don’t eat fruit/sweets, grains, caffeine, or alcohol. I’m starting to get traction with this…. feeling better than ever in my entire life and I’m 33!… this is my truth based on my experience on the matter.

  3. “By and large, the food staples in rural sub-Saharan villages are agriculturally based, with millet, sorghum, maize, cassava, and dairy featuring prominently in the diets of these people.” Chris, coming from sub-Saharan Africa, I just want to add that you left out some of the most important staples of rural sub-Saharan villages such as yams (sweet, bitter, white, etc.), coco yam (varieties of them), plantain, banana, Irish and sweet potatoes, red palm oil, a variety of green leafy vegetables and oilseeds such as groundnuts and egusi which are used in preparing the sauces that goes with grains, and beans. Just to name a few and I agree with you that there is a great deal of dietary variation across the continent and even within a country. My ethnic group/tribe for example has nothing to do with dairy products at all. After breast feeding, that is it, no more milk :). In addition to the grains not containing gluten, is it possible that the food combinations and not only the staples is contributing to the robust health you stated above? After all they consume the staples with other foods like a variety of green leafy vegetables and oil seeds which are rich in vitamins and minerals, and some of them are rich in proteins.

    • Thank you Philomena for pointing these things out. The traditional West African diets I have some familiarity with such as in Nigeria, Ghana, Gambia, don’t deal with dairy.

  4. Chris, I often wondered about the diet our direct ancestors ate. I am from Russia, My father is blond and blue eyed, meaning he is from a northern European climate. My mother is black hair and tans easily so she is from a more southern Europe. I take after her. So should I eat an ancestral diet southern living Caucasians used to eat???

    also, will eating a specific type of diet select for a specific bacteria population???

  5. Thanks for the info about non-gluten containing grains. Very interesting also about the milk drinking behavior.

    A small quibble, but the phyla percentages you quoted from the study are a bit off and reversed in the higher to lower ratios. It is a nice study though. Cheers.

  6. Outstanding – very thought provoking, Chris!

    perhaps rather than search for heath via cultural-adaptation to food preparation, there are some cross cultural similarities in all humans. Most cultural foodstuffs are adult-based foods and lifestyle differences, but as a species we share huge similarities as infants.

    Like all animals we eat/drink human-colostrum as our first food. Even eating colostrum crom other species (cow) has a wide-range of health effects. But we need look carefully at non-monetary ‘preparation’. Colostrum is WARM … body temperature warm …. THE ideal temperature where enzyme proliferation is maximized.. Should we eat prepared foods/drink (bee)r at warm, rather than cold enzyme-restricting temperatures – like infants of all human cultures? Should we eat all fermented foods warmed?

    ALL newborns of all warm-blooded species have no stomach acid, so the emulsification of complex-fats [like cholesterol-based hormones (D3) and K2] is accomplished with the bile salt taurocholate. {For humans this is THE ONLY BILE SALT present for 15 days, post-birth.} This and all bile salts are degraded by stomach acid … that is a normal part of adult digestion.

    Adults can vastly increase the heath benefits of colostrum by using enteric-coated tabs of colostrum + a little taurocholate. Drink with a glass of warm water.

  7. As a UK city-dweller I’ve tried sourdough bread made with ‘modern’ wheat flour and yeasted bread made from spelt flour, which I bellieve is closer to ‘traditoinal’ wheat. My gut is much happier with the latter.

  8. Hi Chris,

    Great post! Your posts about international cuisines have resurfaced a desire to learn about traditional North Indian cuisine-something I have tried to research in the past, but to no avail. If we are to assume that Indians that lived on a traditional diet were healthy, then I would be really insterested to know how wheat, which is a said to be a staple in the North Indian diet, affected them. A while back, I found out that the rate of celiac Indians was the same as Americans. This I found surprising, since flatbreads made from wheat are a part of every meal from where I’m from. Do you think you could point me to some articles that discussed the how healthy traditional North Indians and others who ate glutinious grains were? I would really love to see some research on how gluten affected Indians in context of thier traditional way of eating, as the Indian diet (a an extremely vague idea, to be sure) is something that I have just about never seen mentioned by Weston Price, Paleo community, etc.

    Again, thanks for a great post!

    • Hello Pranay,

      This may help. I recall seeing a documentary some time ago about putting southern North American Indians on a traditional diet to address obesity and diabetes. Unfortunately, cannot recall more details than that.

      With a little research you should be able to come across the research.

      • Thank you for your response, but I was referring to Indians from India, not Native Americans! XD
        Thanks all the same, though!

    • Hi, Pranay, I hope you’re still watching. You may find some clues to Indian diet in the writings of Sir Robert McCarrison who served in India in the early 20th century. In the book ‘Nutrition and Health’ he compares the diets of various parts of India. My copy came from The McCarrison Society, in the UK but I think it’s currently out of print. Published research in the Indian Journal of Medical Research, 1919 and 1920 and the British Medical Journal. Check Amazon Books.

  9. Hi, this is a question. I would like to incorporate some grains into my diet especially after reading about fermenting them. Do you have information about how and what you need to do this?

    • Dear Elizabeth, one of the easiest ways to ferment grains is to use sourdough. This is a cultured starter that is used to leaven breads. It can also be used to ferment grains and deactivate phytic acid and other antinutrients. Sourdough is easy to make, easy to maintain, and easy to use (there is much information on the web about it, simply substitute other grains for wheat in the recipes). It can be stored in a refrigerator for weeks before it needs to be maintained (i.e., fed fresh flour). Sourdough preparations have been shown to deactivate the most antinutrients and make bioavailable nutrition (through pre-digestions, of sorts) better than other methods of preparing grains. Plus, it adds a wonderful and characteristic sour flavor. Best wishes.

      • Arthur, what are your thoughts on using sprouted spelt flour (store-bought, organic) to make sourdough starter? Many thanks in advance.

      • Hi, thanks for the information. Sourdough and I are good friends. Before I started eating Paleo I made lots of sourdough bread, even capturing wild cultures instead of using sourdough starter. Love it! Would making sourdough bread from wheat render it less harmless to the gut?

  10. Another issue I didn’t cover in this post, but I did discuss during my presentation at AHS this year, is how the microbiome affects our tolerance of these foods.

    In countries where the Paleolithic microbiome is still intact (due to exposure to helminths, soil-based bacteria and other “Old Friends”, and lack of exposure to antibiotics and modern lifestyle) soaked grains and beans may be better tolerated than in countries where Old Friends have disappeared (i.e. the modern, industrialized world). See this podcast for more info: http://chriskresser.com/what-are-the-hidden-costs-of-modern-hygiene

  11. Brown rice and sorghum causes psoriasis for me. Even sorghum based liquor. Grains based on annual agriculture isn’t a sustainable model in general.

    • Dear js290. I consume an annual grain relatively often that is completely sustainable. I gather Zizania palustris (northern wild rice) from slow-moving waters near my home in Maine. Many people don’t realize that wild rice is found throughout much of the northeast and eastern United States (i.e., it isn’t restricted to the Great Lakes region). This wild, annual grain is gathered in traditional fashion using a canoe poled through dense stands of rice. As we knock the grains into our water craft, we also dislodge many grains and spread them around (dispersing the fruits and taking part in the plant’s ecology). Wild rice contains more nutrition than most grains and a full 30% of its lipids are omega-3 fatty acids (i.e., it is unlike cultivated grains). I’m not trying to pick your comment apart (in fact I agree for the most part), I’m only noting that some wild grains can be enjoyed as a nutritious food and don’t contribute to landscape alteration/destruction (like cultivated wheat, etc.). Most people never consider gathering food for themselves (therefore, their observations and comments are based on what they buy at the store and how those store-purchased foods were produced). Wild plants offer some real advantages, once learning how to find and gather them is attained. Best wishes to you.

      • Thank you for sharing your insights, experience, and knowledge, Arthur! Your lifestyle is inspirational – living in a reciprocal harmony with nature! So many of us (myself included) have been so far removed from this harmonious way of life that your life reads like fantasy! You brought it to real life. Thank you!

  12. I lived in east Africa a couple years, and traveled to seven countries there in total. Yes, a whole lotta grains getting consumed there. Where I lived in a semi-urban area, people were not preparing their grains properly. They were buying pre-ground maize flour to make a stiff porridge called ugali. The people I knew from the city who ate this kind of flour didn’t have very good dental health. In the rural area I spent time in, people made ugali from a mix of freshly milled cassava flour and maize flour. Not sure if they soaked it first or not, but I saw good dental health everywhere I went in the rural area.

    Ethiopia is probably the best example I know of fermented grains, with their injera bread made of fermented teff flour. Yum, very delicious and sour, too. Dairy is also very important to them, in the form of butter called kibe, and cheese called ib. The Christians there fast as sugar-free vegans for the 40+ days of Lent, and then pig out on Easter. Some friends of mine made a dish called genfo with cooked wheat flour made with butter, shaped into a bowl, and then filled with at least two cups of melted butter inside. This is sometimes topped with yogurt and berbere (red chili spice mix). That’s enough for two people, so about one cup of butter each!

    And then let’s also remember that Africans across the continent know their organ meats. And chunks of gristle. By far, those were the most important foods.

    Thanks for this post, Chris! I still eat grains, but only after long soaking with acidic or neutral medium, as needed.

  13. Dear Chris, you’ve presented a really nice piece of information that I enjoyed reading. The Paleo Diet crowd has really promoted a grain-free diet in recent years, and with good reason. However, most of this diet’s followers are really only associated with a few kinds of grains, all cultivated, and most gluten-containing. And most of this diet’s followers (in fact, most of America) are not familiar with traditional practices of grain, nut, achene, and legume preparation to maximize nutrition (e.g., soaking, sprouting, fermenting). The real dilemma here is that based on a country’s reaction to modern wheat, a dietary dogma has evolved that attacks all grains–but all grains are not created equal in terms of allergens, nutrition, and essential fatty acids. I am in no one trying to diminish the value of the paleo diet with these comments, but every diet has its dogma and its part-truths it relies on. I really appreciate you taking time to cut through dietary dogma. Nutritional wisdom cannot be summed up with simple sound bytes like “avoid all grains”. Real world observations show some cultures excelled (not just survived) with grains as a staple, indicating the grain message needs to be more precise. I suggest to my readers regarding grains: diversify your diet (i.e., eat less grain), avoid gluten-containing kinds, and seek wild and heirloom types. You might appreciate this article (http://www.arthurhaines.com/24-June-2013.html). Best wishes.

    • Great article Chris. I come from a village in Cameroon where the staple is maize consumed with a wide variety of green leafy vegetables and a combination of these leafy vegetables with oil seeds. Most of the maize is consumed as is i.e. not soaked, spouted or fermented. Soaked sprouted and fermented maize are mostly for special occasions which do not occur very frequently. We simply grind or milled the maize/corn into flour, gelatinize the starch in hot boiling water (foofoo) and eat with any of the green leafy vegetables alone or prepared with oil seeds and very little meat or no meat sometimes.

  14. In Ethiopia, the staple food Injera bread. It is a flatbread used as the majority of every meal and has been for millennia. Injera is more nutritionally dense than wheat and is gluten free. It is made from an endemic grain, Teff, and is fermented for several days.

    Interestingly, as teff flour is difficult to obtain in most countries outside of Ethiopia, most of the expat Ethiopians I know have awful issues with Injera made from gluten containing grains and can only tolerate
    It when made from rice flour or other alternatives – that was something that influenced my decision to eliminate gluten from my diet.

    Another observation from my many trips to Ethiopia over the last decade is rapidly growing rates of obesity and diabetes – one of the most significant dietary changes I have seen in that time is the increasing use of seed oils over animal fats when cooking, along with the gradual infiltration of western food items.

    However I always come back from a trip feeling great – the traditional foods come from small farms, truly organic, pasture raised et al – and I have never had any problem with Injera, it is one of the few grain based foods I have retained in my diet

  15. It is a very interesting article, thank you. Being Russian myself, I was thinking about traditional Russian diet that involves lots of grains. And there is even a saying about eating “каша” serial or porridge and good health and strength. At the same time Russian traditional cuisine was always rich with fermented drinks and foods for example, “kvas”, different kinds of fermented milk products, fermented cabbage, sourdough breads and etc. It would be very interesting to read your opinion on Russian traditional cuisine.

  16. I am no advocate for John McDougall but he makes the claim that starch from tubers and grains together with vegetables are a healthy diet. (as you know he is a vegan, thinks meat is an abomination) What say you in regard to these prepared grains eaten by these people’s referred to in the article. Kinda makes the case for him except for some dairy and some meat.