Food for thought: Eating healthy is costly, but there are cheap options

The man seated at the corner table cuts the image of someone trying to fit into a place he desperately craves. The 60-year-old grandfather is not the type to be found in a middle-class restaurant in the city but, hey, these are modern times.


It turns out, the one-meal-per-day policy is not a frugal stunt being pulled by some old man trying to avoid the ravages of greedy grandchildren. “My children are grown up with their own families and live to run. I began (eating healthy) two years ago and since then I have never looked back,” the businessman says of a habit he picked when he entered this same restaurant for a “normal lunch only to discover that such a lunch is not served.”

This trend has not only seen more and more Kenyans flock to a new set of eateries in the city serving organic foods, but also adjust their eating habits and espouse a stringent fitness regime. Faced with an economy in which inflation has spiralled to more than 25 per cent as a result of, among others, the recent post-election violence and rising global oil and food prices, majority of price-sensitive Kenyans would be forgiven if they feel that such a habit is pocket-wrenching.

Healthy eating doesn’t come cheap. At Bridges Resteurant a glass of vegetable juice goes for Sh90, organic coffee at Sh50, organic tea Sh60, while half a plate of a mixture of maize, njahi and vegetables sets you back Sh180.

At Health Foods Restaurant on Kimathi Street, a soya egg with toast goes for Sh140, soya sandwich at Sh120, health herbal tea at Sh55, soup Sh120 and tree tomato juice goes at Sh110.

Mrs Ann Mbugua, the managing director of Bridges, says the cost of acquiring and preparing the food has pushed up the prices. “At first glance, our prices seem to be expensive. But on the long-term, if our food enables you to cut down on your medical bills because we believe it will, it is by far cheaper,” says Ms Mbugua, who has been in the business since 2006.

Her colleague at Health Foods Restaurant Catherine Mugalo, says: “If you compare the kind of ingredients we use and the prices we charge with those of most of the fast food joints in the city, you will realise that we are not all that expensive,” she says.

Since it is the wearer of the shoe who knows where it pinches, in this case the wearer seems to be comfortable. “Even if you spend Sh1 million for the sake of your good health, it is not expensive,” argues Mr Ndung’u, who owns a 100-acre farm in Nakuru.

It is a view that seems to be resonating well with the experts. Mr Alice Ojwang-Ndong, a nutrition and dietetic consultant with Xenihealth at a city nutrition and weight loss management firm, says healthy eating is beneficial. “If, as Kenyans, we have to cut on the rising cases of diseases like diabetes and cancer even among children, we have to re-examine our dietary habits,” says Ms Ojwang-Ndong.

Ms Kate Kibaara of Inner Health, who says healthy eating and living is a small but growing influence on Kenyans presently, defends the operators.  She says healthy food producers and suppliers tend to charge higher prices due to the higher costs involved in the production and the relatively small-scale nature of the industry.

Paying more

“If the hotels and restaurants that serve healthier options on their menus are paying more for their supplies, it is natural that the difference would be reflected in the menu prices,” she says.

However, whichever way you look at it, she believes it is money well spent. “While the high-street prices of health foods compare relatively poorly with mass-produced and processed foods, you should ask yourself: How much value do you place on your personal health and well-being?”

Yet, all of them, including the restaurant operators, are quick to point that this does not mean that you could only get healthy foods in such niche restaurants and hotels. Ms Mbugua, whose eatery is linked to an industry lobby, Kenya Organic Agricultural Network (KOAN), says you should extend dietary discipline to your home or kitchen. “It is a waste of time to have a healthy meal, say, at lunch time and go home in the evening to eat fatty foods picked from fast food restaurants on your way home,” she warns.

According to her, vegetables and other foods grown in kitchen gardens would easily do the trick. “You could easily get fresh fruit and vegetables from some of the markets, including open air ones, rather than in the supermarkets,” says Ms Ojwang-Ndong.

She calls for moderation on processed foods and those with excessive salt, sugar or fats. Eat a variety of nutrient-rich foods as you need more than 40 different nutrients for good health, and no single food supplies them all.

Your daily food selection should include bread and other whole-grain products, fruits, vegetables and dairy products. You also need meat, poultry, fish and other protein foods.

“How much you should eat depends on your calorie needs,” says Ms Kibaara. “It is good to remember that there is no food that is good unless it is well stored, prepared, served and eaten,” warns Ms Ojwang-Ndong.

Try to select foods based on your total eating patterns, not whether any individual food is “good” or “bad.” Eat them in moderation, experts advise, and choose other foods to provide the balance and variety that are vital to good health.

If you keep your food portions reasonable, it is easier to eat the foods you want and stay healthy. Eat regular meals. Skipping meals can lead to out-of-control hunger, often resulting in overeating. When you are very hungry, it is tempting to forget about good nutrition.

Curb hunger

Eating snacks between meals can help curb hunger, but do not eat so much that the snack becomes an entire meal. Balance your food choices over time. Not every food has to be “perfect.”

When eating food high in fat, salt or sugar, select others that are low in these ingredients. If you miss out on any food group one day, make up for it the next. Make changes gradually. Just as there are no easy answers to a healthy diet, do not expect to totally revamp your eating habits overnight. Changing too much, too fast can get in the way of success.

Maintain a healthy weight. The weight that is right for you depends on many factors including your sex, height, age and heredity. Excess body fat increases your chances for high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, some types of cancer and other illnesses.

But being too thin can render you susceptible to certain risks such as menstrual irregularities and other health problems. “A regular and well executed exercise regime is a must no matter how healthy your eating habits are,” warns Ms Kibaara.

Like any new trend, the organic food industry is open to abuse with unscrupulous characters masquerading as suppliers of organic food. “Consumers must be careful on who supplies what,” says Mr Ndung’u who has at times even trailed the supplier to make sure he gets the right foods.