Nigerian ‘swallow’ is NOT unhealthy 

Let me start by saying nothing saddens me more than hearing people say the Nigerian diet is unhealthy. When people say this one of the major things you hear them talk about is how our diet is so high in Carbs. People who want to lose weight are advised to shun our Nigerian ‘swallow’ or make so-called  ‘healthy’ alternatives using foreign ingredients which are not readily available and also more expensive.

I do not blame the people who give such advice to be honest because it’s easier to find research on the health benefits of cabbage or oats than it is to find health benefits of ‘fufu’. But fear not that is why we are here, to ensure that our motherland food is not sacrificed on the altar of globalisation. 😊 So today we will be looking at what is probably the most vilified aspects of the Nigerian diet – swallows.

For those of you who might not know what ‘swallows’are  its a general term used to describe foods made with starchy carbohydrates and prepared with water until they have a dough like consistency. These are then eaten with a variety of stews. Popular ones include Eba (made from cassava) Amala  (made from yams) Tuwo (made from maize or rice). The picture from Nigerian Lazy Chef  sums it up beautifully, I mean how can anyone look at this and say its noy healthy. Nigerian diet is infact one of the healthiest in the world! 🙂

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Photo Credit – Nigerian Lazy Chef

It’s not surprising that swallows are being blamed for weight gain because after all they are made from carbs and carbs are bad for you, yeah? Well, the answer depends on what you mean by carbohydrates.  As silly as that statement might seem,  I have released that in practice not everyone knows what constitutes carbohydrates in the diet. Therefore in a previous post I talked about the different types of carbohydrates and the impact of each on health and weight.

Carbohydrates are the body’s preferred energy source, we thrive on them and for most people, we become irritable without them.  The problem isn’t carbohydrate but the type and quantity of carbohydrate and the same goes for swallows.

Swallows are made from complex carbohydrates what that means is that the body doesn’t break them down as quickly as it would sugar (a simple carbohydrate) for instance. That said majority of swallows are made from what we call starchy carbohydrates which are naturally higher in calories when compared to their non-starchy counterparts.

Starchy carbohydrates come  mainly from root vegetables like cassava, potatoes,yams but also grains like rice and corn. Non-starchy carbohydrates  typically grow above the ground and include things like salads, tomatoes, cucumber, onions, celery etc.Yes vegetables are carbohydrates.

Because starchy carbohydrates are dense sources of energy a little goes a long way. The high carb content of these foods in their original state might be high but a closer look at the preparation methods of these foods reveals once again the wisdom of traditional methods.

What do I mean? Well Let’s look at each of these methods in turn

1) Fermentation – A number of our traditional swallows undergo a process of fermentation. This is a process used in a number of cultures and is scientifically proven to reduce the carbohydrate content of foods. In addition it provides us with probiotics. For more on the importance of fermentation and probiotics please see my previous post.

2) Oiling – In addition to fermentation some swallows like yellow garri eba and ‘starch’ involve the addition of palm oil. This makes sense because the lower degree of fermentation means that carb content is still a bit high. The added fat/oil helps to further slow down the release of glucose into the bloodstream.

3) Hydration – Swallows are cooked in water. A significant amount of what you eat in a typical swallow meal is water. This increases satiety (feeling of fullness) thus limiting consumption. In addition to being cooked in water, they are eaten with soups rich in fibres. Some of these fibres absorb water and help to further increase feeling of fullness, especially the ‘draw’ soups.

4) Balance – Swallows are not eaten on their own. They are eaten with soups cooked with healthy oils and protein both of which further help to reduce their impact on blood sugar and consequent weight gain.

At this point I would like to talk about one of the so-called healthy alternative that has caugt my attention recently. It seems to be popular with those on ketogenic/low carb-high fat diets in Nigeria. Yes you guessed right it’s the likes of cabbage eba , eggplant Amala etc. Obviously my first thought was ‘which one be this one again o’ and though I applaud the creativity, I was quite curious and wondered how they manage to give cabbage a ‘sticky’ consistency. A quick search on the Internet revealed the secret ingredient :Psylum husk.powder.

Psylum husk is a soluble fibre used in the treatment of constipation because of its ability to soak up water and therefore make stool softer and defecation easier. Though soluble fibres like psylum husk might have a number of benefits, the problem with using it as a supplement or in cooking is dosage. Dosage is key when supplementing with fibre as there is an increased chance of overdosing than when fibre is eaten as part of the whole vegetable. Psylum husk has a number of potential side effects ranging from mild to severe. Some common ones include gas,bloating, abdominal cramps and interaction with minerals and medication which limit absorption and efficacy. For more on the potential side effects of Psylum husk and dosage see here

So before you decide to switch to so-called ‘healthy’ alternatives  consider the above and following guidelines:

Summary Guidelines for Eating Swallows as part of a weight loss diet. 

  • Go for fermented options These include Eba (Ijebu garri has the lowest carbohydrate), fufu,lafu, Eko/agidi.Eko is a type of swallow made from fermented corn (it’s basically solidified pap) and though  not as popular as the others is worth considering for those looking to lose weight.  I remember we used to have it with vegetable soup back in secondary school. (All hail Federal government girls college, Sagamu…lol)
  • When eating  grain based swallows like Tuwo shinkafa  use local or brown rice which hasn’t been polished rather than the refined ones. Grains are not usually fermented but the fibre helps to reduce impact on blood sugar levels. A grain based swallows that has received a lot of attention in recent times is made from the humble ‘fonio’ also known as ‘acha’ grain. It is popular in the northern part of nigeria amongst the Plateau and Bauchi tribes (yeh. ..my people..lol). Acha is gluten-free grain which is high in protein and other nutrients.
  • Add more water – Dont make your swallow hard like olumo rock.  Also consider ‘swallows’ which naturally have a higher water content like Amala, lafu and Eko. The high water content of swallows like Amala make them a staple amongst the Yoruba people when weaning/introducing solids to infants.
  • Reduce your portion – A fist size portion is recommended. More soup and less swallow. This is where some of you might be glad you got big hands. lol
  • Eat swallows with ‘draw’ soups like okra, ogbono and ewedu. Every wondered why eat and love ‘draw’ soups? Well, it’s cos they are high in soluble fibres. When soluble dissolve in  water they form a gel like substance which coats the lining of the intestine thus ensuring that glucose (from carbohydrate) enter into the blood stream gradually. This is an important factor for weight management because when glucose enters the bloodstream gradually it is less likely to be stored as fat. A number of researches have been carried out showing the ability of Okro to help reduce blood sugar levels. This has made it an important food to consider  in the management of diabetes. Apparently roasted okra seeds have been historically used in the treatment of diabetes in turkey. Please do not substitute your medication for okro.
  • Consider swallows like unripe plantain fufu. Unripe plantain contains a type of starch known Resistant starch. Resistant starch are not broken down by digestive enzymes and as such have no direct impact on blood sugar levels. They are digested in the large intestine and like fibre help feed the friendly bacteria. These can be made by slicing and drying the unripe plantain. This is then be blended into a powder and prepared the way you would any other swallows. This is the way my grandma use to make it but  you can also make them using fresh unripe plantain. There are loads of recipes online.
  • Finally avoid   I call ‘new age’ swallows like poundo (most contain little if any yam flour) wheat. They contain a significant amount of carbs and other additives without the added benefit of fermentation.