If you watched the Olympic Opening Ceremony in London last night, you might have noticed Cameroon’s athletes and their elaborate attire.
Cameroon has over 30 athletes, in a variety of sports– weightlifting, swimming, boxing, table tennis, rowing, judo, wrestling, track & field, and soccer. Seeing all of the elaborate costumes and the Cameroon flag reminded me of my trip to Cameroon 6 years ago. Since this is a blog about nutrition/food, I thought I’d share some of the food I ate while in Cameroon as well as what type of problems the typical Cameroonian diet can cause.
As you can see, the typical diet in rural Cameroon is made of carbohydrates. We had a lot of corn, cassava root, and plantains, which are all very starchy foods. The only protein I saw in the typical Cameroonian diet came from beans (a dish called cornchaf, which was basically corn and beans cooked in lots of oil), but there was also chicken, pork, beef, and monkey available for those who can afford it.
In the more rural areas that we traveled, it was not rare to come across many children with Kwashiorkor. Kwashiorkor is a form of malnutrition that results when a person is consuming enough energy (calories) but consuming little or no protein. It usually occurs in individuals who are consuming carbohydrates almost entirely. “Kwashiorkor” is a Ghanian word for the disease that develops when a mother’s child is weaned from protein-rich breast milk to a protein-poor carbohydrate food source (ie: cassava root, corn, rice, and plantains).
Kwashiorkor isn’t common in the US. In fact, in the US it occurs mainly in connection with acute life-threatening illnesses such as trauma and sepsis, where the body’s protein needs are significantly increased.
When a physiological stress is produced, it increases protein and energy requirements at a time when intake is limited. During stress, the body needs extra protein to synthesize additional hormones, immune factors to fight infection, collagen to rebuild damaged tissue and bone, and muscle cells to maintain the physical work of organs.
In children, kwashiorkor can result when poor dietary intake is added to the stress of growth, infections, or other illnesses. Characteristics of kwashiorkor include significantly decreased serum proteins, pitting edema, swollen abdomen, flaky appearance of the skin, thin muscles but fat is present, “moon face”, and hair which can be easily plucked from the head. The child may have a well nourished appearance because they are getting enough calories in their diet, but they are still malnourished. In fact, kwashiorkor can take just weeks to develop and the mortality is high.
The treatment for kwashiorkor is to provide adequate calories and protein for the child/patient. Carbohydrates may be given first, and then protein slowly added afterwards. The condition can correct itself, but for those who have had kwashiorkor for a long time, permanent physical and mental problems may still exist, such as a child not reaching their full height potential.
It is interesting to see how those in 3rd world countries eat on a day-to-day basis, and how that differs from America. The athletes from Cameroon may eat their cassava root and plantains, but in order to become top athletes, it’s obvious they had to make sure to get enough protein in their diet, specifically from animal sources such as chicken, beef, and pork.