What you need to know:
- Wheat contains a protein known as gluten.
- Gluten is the general name for the group of naturally-occurring proteins that are also found in grains such as rye and barley.
There is a wheat element in every meal consumed in Irene Emali’s household in Kitengela. Breakfast, lunch and dinner all feature wheat in one form or another.
Hers is a typical middle-class Kenyan family, with two sons and a daughter aged 11, nine and four, respectively. She is a software developer and her husband is a nurse.
The children attend a day school and as such, the family gathers for breakfast every morning before school and work. “For breakfast, we normally have porridge or tea and juice. Bread must be there. Sometimes there are pancakes too,” she says.
“I pack some muffins for them to school and some for myself to work. Some days are too busy to find time for lunch. The snacks come in handy,” she adds.
She says baking is a favourite pastime, a skill she learned in the months of lockdown in 2020. Whenever she is home during the weekend, she makes mandazis or cupcakes. “My children enjoy cakes. If I am unable to bake, then I must buy some from our neighbourhood bakery.”
Whenever she goes shopping on Saturday afternoon, she takes her children with her. For this family, a visit to the mall must feature two treats: ice cream and pizza.
“They are children and I do not know how to say ‘no’ to their cravings,” Irene laments.
Back home, the family will sometimes have chapati and stew for dinner.
She admits: “Wheat is a major component of our diet. Even when my husband and I do not eat wheat products, it is difficult to stop the children.”
No visit to her parents in Mumias in Kakamega County is complete without two bales of wheat flour, among other consumables.
There is hardly anything unusual about the wheat consumption rate in Irene’s household. Her family is an accurate representative of the average Kenyan household, where each individual consumes 43 kilogrammes of wheat per year, according to 2020 data from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS).
In most neighbourhoods in Nairobi, and across the country, few businesses are as thriving as food businesses, even fewer as vibrant as chapati and mandazi ones. A queue for mandazi for breakfast begins as early as 6am at Kevin Ouma’s shed at Sunton in Kasarani. By 11am, he starts to make chapati for lunch, working until 3pm.
‘‘I rest for two hours until 5pm. Then I start making more chapatis for supper,’’ he says, adding that he uses two bundles of wheat flour (48 kilos) for mandazi and chapati daily.
‘‘Most young families prefer to buy mandazi and chapati to making them at home because it is more convenient. I think this is also because of the current high cost of wheat flour,” he says.
To understand the obsession with wheat products among Kenyans, you need not look farther than your local store. At Naivas Supermarket along Kenyatta Avenue, for instance, there are at least three sections for bread, cookies, cake, pastry, scones and rolls, running the entire stretch of the store.
Unlike maize meal which can be consumed in only a handful of ways, wheat flour can make as many as 100 different foods.
Do you feel hungry only a few hours after eating? How do you wake up feeling in the morning? Energised or exhausted? Do you often struggle to put out stool? Look at your diet and look even more keenly at your wheat intake, advises Wanja Nyaga, a UK-based nutritionist.
But what are the specific health implications of wheat?
Foremost, wheat contains a protein known as gluten. Gluten is the general name for the group of naturally-occurring proteins that are also found in grains such as rye and barley.
Is gluten consumption good or bad for you, though? Gluten has both positive and adverse effects to your body and health. ‘‘It depends on how much an individual ingests foods rich in gluten,’’ says Wanja.
Effects of too much gluten in your diet can range from mild fatigue, bloating, constipation and diarrhoea to severe and unintentional weight loss, malnutrition and intestinal damage.
Celiac disease is one of the commonest and chronic digestive and immune disorders that damages the small intestine, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney (NIDDK) Diseases of the United States.
Exposure to gluten causes inflammation in the gut for patients while continued exposure progressively damages the small intestines. Doctors warn that this disease can cause long-lasting digestive problems by preventing your body from getting all the requisite nutrients and minerals.
Patients of celiac disease may experience digestive complications or symptoms in other parts of their body although digestive problems are more common in children than adults. It is also possible to have celiac disease without knowing, especially when no symptoms occur. What is shocking, though, is that one in 100 people worldwide suffers from the condition.
Wanja notes that a gluten-free diet is the primary medical treatment for people with allergic reactions to wheat and those with celiac disease. One must also eliminate it from their diet for a lifetime.
Besides inflammation of the intestines, consuming too much wheat can lead to weight gain. You gain weight when your body is unable to utilise all the energy generated and stores the extra calories in form of fat. People who consume a lot of starch and engage in minimal physical activity are at a higher risk of weight gain, especially if their diet is wheat-heavy.
Medical and nutrition experts say gluten in wheaten foods stimulates a sharp rise in your blood sugar, triggering compulsive overeating.
Even more frightening, wheat contains the glycemic component in higher quantities than table sugar. Put simply, having three slices of bread is unhealthier than adding three tablespoons of sugar in your tea or coffee.
Yet here is the real problem. The faster your blood sugar level spikes, the faster it falls. When it falls, it causes you to experience wild cravings for food. You always want to eat. The result? Addictive eating, which is injurious to both your pocket and health. Try cutting out what from your breakfast and see how much longer you are able to go without needing to eat, advise doctors.
“Understanding and following a strictly gluten-free diet, however, can be challenging. It requires in most cases the guidance of a registered dietitian. This one will educate you on foods that contain gluten and in what quantities to ensure that adequate nutrients are obtained from those gluten-free alternatives,” says Wanja.
The nutritionist says people following a wheat-free diet can eat rice, oats (that are labelled gluten-free), maize, rye and barley. “Gluten-free bread flours contain combinations of buckwheat, chickpea, maize, millet, potato, rice and tapioca flour,” she explains.
When war broke out in Ukraine three months ago, the ripple effect would be felt heavily on Kenyan dining tables, 5,400 kilometres away. Kenya gets the bulk of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine, both countries currently engaged in war. The two Eastern European countries account for 60 per cent of Kenya’s total grain import as of 2018, a report by the Global Agricultural Information Network of the United States shows.
In 2021, Kenya imported a staggering 2.4 million metric tonnes of wheat. Even with Kenyans’ insatiable appetite for wheat products, farmers in the country produce on average only 100,000 metric tonnes of the grain per year. This is about five per cent of the country’s total wheat intake.
Kenya’s obsession for wheat has been growing in triple figures even long before independence. In 1960, Kenya consumed 110,000 metric tonnes of wheat per year, a figure that would grow tenfold to one million metric tonnes by the 2000s. In 2011, the consumption crossed 1.5 million metric tonnes per year.
Yet it is in the last five years that Kenyans have gone harder on wheat consumption, with the country crossing the two million metric tonnes of wheat consumed in a year in 2017. The numbers do not show any signs of relenting, and in 2021, Kenyans consumed about 2.35 million metric tonnes of wheat. This is predicted to grow by about 100,000 metric tonnes to 2.45 million tonnes by the end of 2022. At the current rate, three million tonnes of wheat per year looks only a handful of doughs away.
To encourage its population from overconsumption of wheat products, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has developed a concept called MyPlate that guides Americans on the ideal components for each meal. MyPlate features vegetables (40 per cent), grain (30 per cent), fruits (10 per cent) and 20 per cent of proteins.
Healthier dietary components
With growing awareness on the effects of excessive gluten on health, many Kenyans are slowly adopting healthier dietary components with less wheat-based meals.
Before Agnes Syombua made an unpopular decision to strike wheat products out of the diet, her family was taking chapati or mandazi for breakfast daily. ‘‘We would alternate these with other wheat products such as doughnuts,’’ she recounts.
This development, though, was not received with both hands. Her sons were disappointed by the change of the breakfast components they had known all their life and snubbed the boiled pumpkins and maize cobs that were introduced as alternatives. ‘‘I brought up my sons in an urban setting. We always had bread and other wheat snacks were in the household. Asking them to start eating traditional, usually boiled tubers, was not easy. They took long to adapt.’’
Even so, it took ingenuity, and sometimes trickery for Agnes to convince them, and to establish the new order in her household. ‘‘My boys are footballers. I explained to them that traditional foods would give them energy required for sports. I told them they needed strength as young men to be like their father. I am happy they have grown into teenagers who appreciate other foods.’’
While they may not have dropped wheat entirely from the diet, things are better now. Whenever wheat products feature, they come in smaller quantities. ‘‘We consume wheat products, mostly chapati, once a week. At most, two times, but never more. We choose between having pancakes on Saturday or chapati on Sunday. This has worked fairly well for us.’’
Healthy Nation was curious to find out why Agnes cut down wheat from the family’s diet. Was a nutritionist consulted, for instance? She explains: ‘‘Nearly everyone in my family had become overweight. I had to make the drastic decision. I did not talk to a nutritionist. I saw some messages online on harmful effects of excessive gluten in the diet.’’
She adds: ‘‘I saw a challenge on Facebook called ‘No Wheat Challenge’ and got interested. I wanted to try it out at home. I enrolled and I was impressed with the results.’’
From weeklong trials, Agnes went for a month with reduced wheat intake. Soon, the new lifestyle caught on. She has never turned back. Today, she is happy with the switch that has yielded both health and economic benefits. ‘‘Everyone has cut weight and looks healthier. We are less tired nowadays.’’
For Pauline Ireri, a mother of three from Kahawa West in Nairobi, the motivation to suspend wheat from the family’s diet three months ago was less self-driven.
‘‘We do not take any wheat products these days unlike before. My four-year-old second born son has attention deficit hypertensive disorder (ADHD). A paediatrician advised me that wheat products cause hyperactivity in ADHD patients. He said it was not good for my son’s condition. I had to eliminate wheat from our diet.’’
Like in Agnes’ household, sweet potatoes and other tubers have replaced bread, cake and mandazi that dominated the diet of Pauline’s family before. ‘‘My children are young, so they did not protest when I altered our weekly menu to withdraw wheat products. I am waiting to see what happens when they grow older.’’
It is not all doom, though, and you do not have to strike out wheat from your family diet. Wanja says there are healthier ways to consume wheat, especially by having meals with whole grain such as brown bread.
“Whole grain has improved health outcomes. One of them is a significantly lower risk of heart disease. You also minimise the likelihood of development of type 2 diabetes.”
On how much wheat intake is healthy, there is no one-size-fit-all daily recommendation for intake, she notes. “It is healthier to introduce gluten to children at six months after attaining the complementary-feeding stage (where children start to eat other types of food besides breast milk,” Wanja advises.
Even after introducing wheat products to a baby’s diet, the nutritionist insists that any unusual negative effects should be noted. “A dietitian should intervene to establish if the child is at risk of gluten intolerance or Celiac disease.”
So, to eat or not to eat wheat? Wanja says wheat is not altogether bad for most people, especially in the short-term. It is a good source of fibre, essential vitamins and minerals. While both refined and unrefined whole wheat products are not bad for health, nutritionists recommend whole wheat as a healthier option because all the nutrients are intact.
Gluten-free diets have become popular globally, and in Kenya. Ultimately, eliminating wheat from a diet or reducing its intake is the first step toward cutting down on other less healthy calories-heavy foods such as sweets, snacks, pizza and other wheat-based foods, the nutritionist says.