Your Kale Chips and Expensive Juice Have Nothing on West African Food

A new report examining the diets of nearly 200 nations over the past 20 years has found that the West African diet far outpaces the US and Europe in terms of its nutritional value.

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Feb 20 2015, 8:30pm

Photo via Flickr user Les Howard

Eastern Europe is full of rich and varied food traditions. The wooly Mangalitsa pigs of Hungary make for beautiful sausage. Albania's version of borek is the ultimate incarnation of simple comfort food. The khachapuri of Georgia even gives pizza a run for its money.

Putting flavor aside, however, it is not a land of healthy diets.

But you may be surprised to hear that West Africa is. Far more so, actually, than our land of supersized milkshakes and potato chips covered in barbecue flavor crystals. The world of science hath spoken.

First, let's back up. A recent review of global dietary habits published by The Lancet Global Health has effectively ranked what 187 nations eat on the basis of nutrition. The good news: The world is eating more healthy food than it has in the past. The bad news: It's also eating a lot more shitty food.

Surely this is a contradiction, you say! Not quite. Researchers examined data from 320 self-reported diet surveys collected between 1990 and 2010 and analyzed them using three dietary patterns. The first included the consumption of healthy fruits, vegetables, beans and legumes, nuts and seeds, whole grains, fish, and milk, as well as total polyunsaturated fatty acids, plant omega-3s, and dietary fiber. The second pattern included unprocessed red meats, processed meats, sugary beverages, saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, and sodium. The third pattern looked at all of those food groups at once, and performed an overall assessment based on all 17 food groups. The study covered 187 nations representing 4.5 billion world adults.

The researchers examined varying degrees of adherence to these dietary patterns in order to score nations on a scale of heart-attack-inducing zero to a Jack-Lallane-juicing 100.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, well-heeled Western nations—including the US, Canada, Western Europe, Australia, and New Zealand—tend to eat more healthy items, but balance that out, or even outweigh it, with a lot of crap. More kale chips purchased, sure; but that doesn't mean that bacon-wrapped pizza doesn't make our country's tongue salivate.

Some parts of the world have seen little flexibility either way. The average diet of a citizen in China, India, or sub-Saharan Africa hasn't changed much since 1990.

Some low-income nations actually scored higher for healthy foods than you might expect, with places such as Chad, Gambia, Mali, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Côte d'Ivoire, and Uganda receiving some of the highest marks. Maybe they don't have cold-pressed juice spots on every corner, but the West African diet of lean meats, vegetables, beans, legumes, and rice does a body good.

But our dear friends in and around the former Eastern Bloc did not fare so well. Central Asia's Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan—land of those greasy, meaty bowls of plov—were among the lowest-scoring nations for healthy food, along with Hungary, Belarus, and the Czech Republic.

The overall takeaway from the report, sadly, was that the world's affinity for junk food is outpacing its adoption of healthy goods. Even more alarming: young people are actually eating more poorly than older adults, signaling that the trend towards garbage-diets could be worsening in the future.

You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him stop eating sausages, pastries, and dense breads.