Updated on November 10, 2016
How to eat healthy in the land of fried carbs?
Not sure if it is because carbs and fat are staple foods or because, especially when combined, they are very appealing to humans, but fact is that in East Africa you never have to worry about not eating enough carbs and fat. You do however have to think about how to limit your intakes.
Ok, people need fat. But people need healthy fat. And I am pretty sure that the fat you get around here is not very healthy. Vegetable oil is sold in jerrycans. That should say enough. Real butter (the one that is made of cow milk) is not available. Fake butter, with at least 5 ingredients, is everywhere. And even though coconuts are cheap and available, coconut oil is not cheap and barely available.
Luckily there are ways to improve your healthy fat intake.
- Fish: especially on the coast there is plenty of fish available. It’s fresh, tasty and can be ordered ‘grilled’, although they do prefer to fry it in, yes, vegetable oil.
- Olive oil: you will not find olive oil in restaurants, but it is sold at supermarkets. Since it is imported, you will pay western prices for it. But I bought a bottle anyway, which I carry with me, and every now and then I pour it generously on my salad or pasta.
- Coconut: whether it is coconut itself, coconut cream or coconut oil, they all contain the healthy coconut fat. However, it is very difficult to find coconut cream without at least 5 artificial ingredients added, which doesn’t make it tasty or particular healthy. In one big Nakumatt supermarket (in Mombasa) I found two brands of coconut cream that only contained coconut and water. They were ‘Thai’ and imported. I use coconut oil for cooking and to mix it through my cereal (which gives a nice coconut flavor as well!)
- Milk products: not the best option, but yoghurt and milk (with their natural fats) are available in supermarkets and for breakfast sometimes, but quite often they use skimmed milk and then add some unnatural creamer (and some other ingredients). Check that before you think you are buying some lovely, creamy, natural yoghurt. (In Tanzania we found a good brand (Dutch Tanzanian milk & yoghurt) at Nakumatt supermarket, but we haven’t found any good yoghurts in Kenya yet.)
- Avocados: avocado is widely available and inexpensive, so it is a great source of healthy fat (and fibre!) to add to your menu. Unfortunately it is not used a lot in restaurants, but you can buy it at any supermarkets or even street stalls and add it your meal.
- Reducing unhealthy fat intake: the easiest is just to avoid fried foods as much as possible. Or fry them yourself in coconut oil. This is easier said than done. A lot of snacks and meals are fried, so at some point I accepted that in these regions fat intake cannot be totally controlled if one wants to eat and limiting is the only option.
Carbohydrates are not necessarily bad. They give energy, are cheap and fill you up. But the amount you normally get here is a bit disturbing and they don’t contain much fibres. Large amounts of (white) rice, pasta or potatoes with some sauce, some meat or fish and a handful of vegetables is not my idea of a balanced meal. I prefer to eat a lot of vegetables with some meat or fish and occasionally some carbs. If you eat very locally, which is good for the travel experience, be prepared to eat a lot of carbs. Although there are some exceptions if you can choose the side dishes. But if you eat at (the slightly more expensive) restaurants, there are ways to avoid it. In restaurants there is very often a choice of rice, potatoes, or any other carb, or vegetables. And even if you can only choose the type of carb, I regularly ask to leave out the carbs and give me vegetables or salad in stead, which they do without an additional charge.