I recently came across an article that suggested that sadza  was “directly linked”  to the increased rates of diabetes and poor pass rate in schools. As a dietitian with a keen interest in the prevention and management of chronic diseases such as diabetes I was intrigued. I read through the article hoping to learn about a new study that somehow demonstrated this “direct link” but was disappointed to find  what I felt was a misguided interpretation of epidemiological data.

It’s true that diabetes is on the increase in Zimbabwe  and poor diets during the early years can impact a child’s learning abilities. However, to generalize that sadza is the causing agent overly simplifies the facts. Diabetes is termed a “disease of lifestyle” because it is often related to changes in diets and lifestyles.

In today’s world today, we eat too much (of the wrong foods) and move little. What links diabetes and learning problems is the fact that we have abandoned our highly nutritious traditional ingredients, feeding practices and lifestyles in exchange for modern  processed foods and cooking methods coupled with sedentary ways.

Once Upon a Time, We Were Healthier

Long before maize was introduced to Africa, our ancestors thrived on a diet fueled by sorghum and millet. These heritage grains are nutritional powerhouses that have been demonstrated to actually protect against diabetes. While both are still  available and consumed, they are viewed with scorn by many families across the country.

Our Food is now highly processed!

In Zimbabwe, refined mealie meal (sometimes  listed as “super refined meal” ) is the favoured type.   Unfortunately, in order to achieve the bright white color and smooth texture so many love, the refining process removes the  parts of the grain that contains vital nutrients like fibre, B-vitamins and even protein. What’s left after processing is  a nutritionally inferior grain, mainly made up of starch.

All the nutrients in a grain work together to improve health but it is fibre that is responsible for slowing down digestion and allowing the body to breakdown the starch into glucose (sugar) for energy at a slow rate.  Insulin is also gradually released in the body and the result is a desirable steady glucose level that prevents the  constant high blood sugars of diabetes.

Since refined mealie meal does not have fibre and other essential nutrients to slow down  absorption, sadza made from it is quickly converted into glucose, causing a spike in blood sugars and insulin. If maintained, these spikes increase an individual’s risk for developing diabetes.

Rather than choosing refined mealie meal, Zimbabweans (and indeed all the sadza eating world) should choose home milled or straight run mealie meal (mugaiwa) which contains significantly more fibre and other nutrients  and does not negatively affect blood sugar levels.

TIP: Eat less refined mealie meal. Enjoy sorghum, millet and mugaiwa more often.

Preventing Diabetes

Variety Matters

Friends of this blog and on social media know how much I preach about eating in colour. Yes, literally colouring your plate with food ensures that your body gets the nutrients it needs. Instead of eating the same veggies every day, pick different ones. Leafy greens like  black jack (mutsine) and  cowpea leaves (munyemba) today, yellow and orange veggies  like carrots and pumpkin tomorrow.     Each colour in food indicates the presence of specific nutrients and more colorful your diet, the better the quality.

In addition to plenty of veggies. Enjoy fresh fruit in season and legumes such as beans, cowpeas and roundnuts. These highly nutritious options are relatively affordable and help  balance the diet.

TIP: Don’t overcook your veggies. Preserve their nutritional value by using just enough water to cook the veggies or saute them in a little oil with onions and tomatoes. 


Speaking of balance

Instead of sticking to the common serving method that gives a mound of sadza with a heap of meat and a teeny weeny tablespoon of veggies,  rethink your portion sizes.

Start by filling half your plate with veggies before placing protein (animal flesh, beans, peanuts, eggs, milk etc) on first quarter and rounding off your plate with starches/ carbohydrates (home-milled maize, sorghum and millet) on the remaining quarter.

Ditch sugary drinks and  alcohol and grab a glass of water to wash it all down. In addition to getting a healthy dose of hydration, you will also reduce the overall amount of sugar  and empty calories in your diet.

Tip: Use the Zimbabwe Hand Jive to estimate your portions.  

Just Move

Technology has been a blessing for convenience but a curse to our health. Where we walked, we now drive Instead of our children playing and running outside, they sit next to us, eyes glued to a screen. This is bad for health.   Get off the phone, computer, couch and move!!!

Tip:  Aim to be active for a minimum of 30 minutes at least 5 days a week.

Finally, it is important to remember that no single food can cause disease by itself. Rather, it is a combination of different foods, preparation methods and lifestyle choices that combine to make or break your health.

As for those failing grades, the above tips can also help ensure adequate nutrition but I will also let you know that good nutrition starts at conception. The first 1000 days (conception to the the second birthday) of a child’s life are extremely important for growth and development. Mother’s choices matter!!

I would love to to hear from you. What are your thoughts on the cause of diabetes in Zimbabwe and Africa and the role of mom’s diet in early childhood.

Here’s to your health…(and a fistful of sadza!)


Note: Sadza/Isitshwala is the staple food of Zimbabwe is also known as Ugali, pap, posho, nshima. In previous discussions on this blog, I have shared sadza’s  nutrition facts,  discussed how it is not fattening,  and even answered the question as to whether it is good for diabetics.