Health impact of ultra-processed foods in Africa

by Amref Health Africa

Jabari,16, a student living in the city, navigates a daily routine of schoolwork, video games and socialising with friends.

However, beneath his seemingly normal life, there is an issue with his health: his diet is filled with ultra-processed foods.

This became a concern after Jabari started experiencing unexplained weakness, affecting school performance and overall energy levels. This made his parents concerned about his health, and he sought medical advice, which revealed high cholesterol and triglyceride levels—an alarming discovery for a young person. 

Jabari’s story illustrates a broader crisis across Africa, where rapid urbanisation and economic shifts have altered dietary habits. While appealing, the convenience of processed foods is contributing to a worrying rise in cardiometabolic diseases such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

This dietary trend, characterised by increased consumption of fast food and packaged snacks, poses a public health challenge threatening health advancements in Africa.

Prompted by Jabari’s medical results, his family embarked on a journey to transform their dietary habits. They replaced ultra-processed snacks and fast foods with whole, minimally processed, nutrient-rich alternatives.

This shift went beyond replacing unhealthy items with healthier options; it entailed a comprehensive lifestyle change. The family started incorporating a variety of locally available fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins into their diet. They moved away from the appeal of junk food to sustainable and healthy eating habits. Despite these positive changes, another layer of Jabari’s health issue surfaced — a vitamin D deficiency, exacerbated by his predominantly indoor lifestyle.

This highlighted another critical aspect of modern urban living: limited exposure to natural sunlight, which is essential for synthesising vitamin D—a critically important micronutrient—in the body. Jabari’s family introduced supplements into his regimen to restore his vitality and support his body’s needs.

Jabari’s experience sheds light on the urgent need for a comprehensive approach to tackle the diet-related health crisis in Africa. Governments and health policymakers must prioritise the development of public health campaigns that educate the population about the risks associated with poor dietary choices. There is a pressing need for stringent regulations on food safety, quality, and labelling to ensure that consumers are well-informed and protected from the adverse effects of ultra-processed foods.

Schools and community centres should become focal points for dietary education, providing platforms for sharing knowledge about nutrition and healthy eating habits. Programs that promote physical activity should also be integrated into educational curriculums to improve physical health and counteract the sedentary tendencies that are becoming prevalent due to urbanisation. The private sector also plays an important role. Food manufacturers and retailers can contribute to public health by reducing their products’ sugar, fat, and salt content and offering healthy alternatives.

Authors: By Ndirangu Wanjuki and Dorcus Indalo

Article first published on

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