The African diet is as rich and diverse as the geography and culture of the world's second-largest continent. Although fish is a mainstay of the African diet in coastal regions and near rivers and lakes, in many parts of Africa the diet is primarily vegetarian, with meat reserved for special occasions. For this reason, and because the human species evolved eating African foods and is therefore presumably well-adapted to those foods, a traditional African diet—sometimes called an African heritage diet—has been promoted as both a healthy alternative to Western diets, especially for black Americans, and as a path to weight loss.
The African diet evolved and adapted with the evolution of Homo sapiens. Some anthropologists believe that the selection pressure that led to bipedalism (walking on two legs) was an adaptation to changing environments that necessitated travel in search of tubers (underground plant stems) and other food sources. Africa's history includes some of human-kind's earliest food production, with the Nile Valley being one of the most fertile centers of the ancient world. The Nile Valley has always been a rich source of fish, animal, and plant foods. In the drier African savannas, especially once the Saharan region became arid after 6000 BCE, nomadic tribes raised cattle, goats, and sheep as food sources. Crops that are less affected by extreme weather—cereals, such as wheat, barley, millet, and sorghum, and tubers such as yams—spread throughout the continent and remain important staples of the African diet today.
Much of the variety in the African diet results from the great differences in climate and terrain across the continent. Tribes and peoples migrated and traded in spices and foods, resulting in the mixing of cultures, traditions, and diets. European colonialism introduced a plethora of new foods, many of which were incorporated into traditional diets. In the modern era, globalization is transforming the African diet, just as aspects of African diets are reaching a worldwide population.
Each region of Africa has its own distinct cuisine and staple foods. Among primary staples, cereal grains—mostly millet, sorghum, teff, and wheat—account for 46% of the energy supplied by the average African diet. Another 20% comes from roots and tubers, especially yams. Roots and tubers account for about 40% of all food eaten by half of the population of sub-Saharan Africa. Although roots and tubers are high in carbohydrates, calcium, and vitamin C, they are low in protein. Other important African food crops include rice, sweet potatoes, leafy greens, okra (a vegetable native to African rainforests), beans, nuts and peanuts, oil palm, and coffee. Sauces and marinades made from herbs and spices, as well as fish, eggs, yogurt, and poultry, are also important components of traditional African diets, with minimal meat and sweets. Although meat is considered a staple in some parts of Africa, animal products supply only 7% of dietary energy in the average diet. Beef, goat, lamb, and sheep (mutton) are very expensive; however, many Africans consume bushmeat.
Traditional African cooking methods include steaming food in leaf wrappers (banana or corn husks), boiling, frying in oil, grilling beside a fire, roasting in a fire, or baking in ashes. Africans have traditionally cooked outdoors or in a building separate from the living quarters. African kitchens commonly have a stew pot sitting on three stones arranged around a fire. Meals are normally eaten with the hands.
White South Africans, including Dutch descendants known as Afrikaners and other Europeans, and Asian Indians in Africa have diets similar to their countries of origin. In urban areas, however, the diets of black Africans are changing rapidly. There is an increasing dependence on meat, and poached bushmeat is decimating wildlife in many regions. Traditional African diets are also being rapidly replaced, especially in urban areas, by Western processed foods that typically contain high amounts of “empty” calories, meaning that they are void of or low in vitamins or minerals.
There is considerable variation in staple foods across West Africa. Traditional West African meals are high in carbohydrates such as yam, rice, or plantain. Okra and fish soup is a traditional West African dish. Rice is predominant from Mauritania to Liberia and across to the Sahel, the region that traverses the continent between the Sahara and the southern savannas. Couscous is prevalent in the Sahara. Along the coast from Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast) to Nigeria and Cameroon, root crops, primarily varieties of yam and cassava, are common. Cassava, imported from Brazil by the Portuguese, is boiled and then pounded into a nearly pure starch. Yam is the chief crop in West Africa and is served in a variety of dishes, including amala (pounded yam) and egwansi (melon) sauce. Millet is used for making porridge and beer. Palm oil is the stew base in Gambia and in southern and eastern regions of West Africa. In the Sahel, groundnut paste (peanut butter) is the main ingredient for stews. Other stews are based on okra, beans, sweet potato leaves, or cassava. Common vegetables include eggplant, cabbage, carrots, French beans, lettuce, onions, and cherry tomatoes. Stews in this region tend to be heavily spiced, often with chilies.
Plantain, a variety of banana, is abundant in more tropical regions of West Africa. Sweet plantains are normally fried, whereas hard plantains are boiled or pounded into fufu. Dates, bananas, guava, melons, passionfruit, figs, jackfruit, mangos, pineapples, cashews, and wild lemons and oranges are also common in West Africa.
Many West African households keep a few domestic animals, such as goats, sheep, cattle, or chickens, although their consumption is generally reserved for ceremonial and festive occasions. Bushmeat, including bush rat, antelope, and monkey, remains a major food source for rural West Africans, providing 20%–90% of their total animal dietary protein. Fish is a staple in coastal areas, and giant snails are eaten in various parts of West Africa. Pork is generally restricted to non-Muslim areas.
Two herding tribes, the Maasai and Fulbe, have notably different diets. Meat is generally reserved for special occasions, but these tribes have traditionally depended on fresh and soured milk and butter as staples. This is unusual because most Africans consume little milk or other dairy products, primarily due to widespread lactose intolerance.
Diets in the horn of Africa, which includes Somalia and Ethiopia, are characterized by their spicy foods, prepared with chilies and garlic. The staple grain, teff, has a considerably higher iron and nutrient content than other African staple grains. A common traditional food is injera, a spongy flatbread that is eaten by tearing it and then using it to scoop up meat or stew.
A greater variety of fruits and vegetables are available in the southern part of the continent, including bananas, pineapples, mangoes, avocados, tomatoes, carrots, onions, potatoes, and cabbage. Nevertheless, the southern African diet is heavily reliant on maize, and traditional southern African meals are generally centered around maize or rice stews. The most common dish made from cornmeal is called mealie meal or pap. Known as nshima or nsima farther north, it is usually covered with stew that includes boiled vegetables, such as cabbage, spinach, or turnips, or on special occasions, fish, beans, or chicken.
In many parts of Africa, traditional indigenous diets are often inadequate in essential vitamins, minerals, and protein. These deficiencies can cause or contribute to a variety of diseases. Micronutrient deficiencies are prevalent throughout much of Africa, particularly in vitamin A, iodine, and iron deficiencies, which can result in vision impairment, goiter (enlarged thyroid), and anemia, respectively. Deficiencies are most common in arid areas where the soil is either naturally poor or has been depleted through poor agricultural practices.
Although depleted agricultural soils and a growing dependence on processed Western-type foods are problems throughout Africa, food insecurity—a lack of consistent and affordable staple food due to drought, floods, warfare, or other natural and manmade disasters—is a far greater (and growing) threat. Although the African continent has long suffered periodic famines, widespread famine has become increasingly frequent in recent decades. During the late twentieth century, the worsening HIV/AIDS epidemic threatened the food supply, as adults fell ill and died and agricultural production declined. Rural communities and women and children were the hardest hit. By the early twenty-first century, climate change was adversely affecting agricultural production in many parts of Africa. In particular, severe drought in the horn of Africa was causing widespread famine.
With its immense and growing population and depleting resources, maintaining healthy, well-balanced, and culturally appropriate diets presents immense challenges for the entire African continent. Preserving traditional food cultures and maintaining and improving agricultural land and practices are vitally important. Climate change has added a new dimension to feeding a continent where geography, politics, culture, and religion have affected the food supply and diet for centuries. Preserving the fertility of African land to feed the people of the continent is an important challenge for the entire world.
See also African American diet ; Minerals ; Protein ; Vitamin A ; Vitamin C ; Vitamins .
Ekunsanmi, Toye. What Africans Eat: Traditional Foods and Food Traditions of West Africa. Denver: Outskirts Press, 2010.
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Agriculture and Consumer Protection Department. “Staple Foods: What Do People Eat?” http://www.fao.org/docrep/u8480e/U8480E07.htm (accessed March 19, 2018).
Govindji, Azmina, and Shams Dharamshi. “Healthy Eating, West African Style.” May 8, 2010. The Ismaili Nutrition Centre. http://www.theismaili.org/cms/997/Healthy-eating-West-African-style (accessed March 12, 2018).
Build Africa, Vale House, Second Floor, Clarence Rd., Tunbridge Wells, UK Kent, TN1 1HE, 44 0 1892 519619, firstname.lastname@example.org, http://www.buildafrica.org .
Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, Viale delle Terme di Caracalla, Rome, Italy, 00153, 39 06 57051, Fax: 39 06 570 53152, FAO-HQ@fao.org, http://www.fao.org .
Oldways, 266 Beacon St., Boston, MA, 02116, (617) 421-5500, Fax: (617) 421-5511, http://oldwayspt.org .
M. Cristina F. Garces
Revised by Margaret Alic, PhD