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DMU academics secure huge research grant to help tackle malnutrition in parts of Africa


Two academics from De Montfort University Leicester (DMU) are to take part in an €11 million, six year-long research project which hopes to tackle malnutrition in parts of the African continent.

Parvez Haris, Professor of Biomedical Science at DMU, has secured more than €671,000 (around £570,000) from a pot being shared between a consortium of 20 African and European institutions in a project called Healthy Diets 4 Africa.

PARVEZ - MAIN

Prof Haris will be a principal investigator in the project, specialising in food safety and nutrition, while DMU’s Dr Helen Coulthard, a psychologist and Reader in Lifespan Eating Behaviour, is to be a co-investigator, using her expertise to understand what is perceived as a healthy diet in African communities.

DMU is the only UK university taking part in the research which focusses on what is called a Double Burden of Malnutrition (DBM).

Scientists say that parts of the African population have been buying increased amounts of processed food over the past 50 years, due to increased urbanisation and more people working outside of the home, leaving them with less time to prepare and cook nutritious meals.

At the same time industries are feeding the trend by investing heavily in the production of ultra-processed food and ultra-sweetened drinks to meet the growing demand.

The Double Burden of Malnutrition (DBM) has come about as some parts of the continent are experiencing growing obesity problems while others are experiencing malnutrition from food lacking in nutrients, causing stunted growth and seeing dangerously thin women of child-bearing age.

Prof Haris was approached to join the research team due to his previous work on the links between diet, nutrition and health.

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This includes his research into exposure to toxic arsenic through the consumption of high quantities of rice by populations in areas such as Bangladesh. It was particularly worrying for this region because rice makes up such a large part of the nation’s diet.

Prof Haris said: “The DBM has emerged as a health problem in sub-Saharan Africa. While we have what people see as malnutrition in terms of a lack of nutritious food, we are also seeing growing obesity due to the supply of high fat, high sugar processed foods.

“I will be looking at the food safety aspect of this research to see what toxins and other potentially harmful food substances are appearing in people’s diet and how these can be reduced.

“We have organisations such as the Food Standards Agency in the UK but these types of structures, that could help in some African countries, are still seriously lacking.

“We need to investigate what are the bad substances - so we will be looking at pesticides, heavy metals and mycotoxins - as well as the good things - such as foods high in fibre and essential nutrients.

“I have brought in Dr Coulthard as a co-investigator as her expertise in food psychology will be able to look at food preference and food choice. For example, what happens if you introduce new foodstuffs into a diet? Will people accept them?

“What is happening in parts of Africa is what has been happening in the UK since World War Two ended. When people were on rations they had a healthy mixed diet. There was no overconsumption and people ate smaller amounts of unprocessed foods.

“But over the last 60 to 70 years there has been lots of fast food, a lot more sugar and lots more fat introduced into our diet and these lack micronutrients such as essential vitamins and minerals.

“This has all happened at the same time as economic growth and increased urbanisation.”

The research will concentrate on sub-Saharan countries in Eastern, Central and Western Africa, namely Benin, Cameroon, Ghana,  Ivory Coast, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria and Uganda.

The Healthy Diets 4 Africa research summary explains: “Some countries in Africa are undergoing “nutrition transformation” with the co-existence of undernutrition and obesity due to greater consumption of foods that are low in nutrient quality but higher in sugar, fat and salt content. 

“There are also concerns regarding food safety and more work is needed to identify contaminants in foods and their sources.  Such knowledge is valuable for improving nutrition and reducing diseases associated with the consumption of foods that are nutritionally poor and also contain toxic chemicals.”

Posted on Tuesday 19th July 2022

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