On Trying to Not Eat Only Plantains
I’m known among people as the health nut. I eat try to avoid processed foods, obsessively shop at farmer’s markets and Whole Foods, and choose local and organic products whenever possible. I eat mainly vegetarian, generally only eating animal products when I know they are from reputable sources and don’t have hormones or other chemicals. I’m a certified yoga teacher, regularly go running, and own way too many workout clothes. Even my Gallatin concentration—Food and Health Justice—is about health and wellness.
When traveling, I usually have to loosen up a little. Outside of the U.S., health foods and fitness aren’t that popular (except in some parts of Europe). Trying to eat consciously while in Costa Rica or Thailand detracts from the cultural experience. After all, am I really going to turn down some pad thai because it was cooked in genetically-modified soybean oil? A little won’t do much harm and I can revert back to my healthy habits once I get back home.
This time, it’s different. I’m in Ghana for four months, not two weeks, so I want to try to eat healthy while I’m here. As you might expect, healthy food isn’t much of a concept in Ghana. In a country where malnourishment is a major issue, people aren’t exactly vying for chia seeds and bee pollen. Instead, people look for high-calorie foods that pack in “nutrients,” since many Ghanaians don’t have the ability to eat three meals a day. Here, Fan Ice, a type of ice cream made from reconstituted milk, fortified with processed vitamins, and eaten out of a plastic bag, is considered a healthy choice. By my usual standards, Fan Ice is the equivalent of eating suntan lotion or some other chemical concoction.
Fan Ice is a new, modern creation, but the traditional Ghanaian diet is far from healthy. It usually consists of starch mush with red mush, meaning some form of carbohydrate (fufu, banku, plantains, rice) with a spicy, tomato based red sauce on top. Sometimes there’s some fried fish, fried chicken, or hard-boiled eggs thrown in for protein. But vegetables? You’d be lucky to get some canned peas garnishing your rice.
Things also get a little tricky with the meal plan NYU has given us. Five nights a week, we get a buffet dinner at a restaurant. Sounds nice, but sometimes the options are unhealthy or unbalanced. I try to avoid the massive quantities or rice or pasta, which leaves room for overcooked vegetable stew, salad with mayonnaise dressing, and fried plantains. It’s hard to know how the food is prepared, whether MSG was used (it’s extremely common here), or what type of oil it was used. Still, it’s a communal activity and free food, so I usually end up trying to choose the healthier options.
Things are easier for breakfast and lunch, when we are on our own for meals. I generally make a massive bowl of fruit with pineapple, bananas, papaya, and watermelon and then something more substantial to accompany it. Lately this has been imported organic English yogurt, one of the only organic things I’ve seen here, mixed with oats, flax seeds, and bee pollen (brought from home). Sometimes it’s Weetabix that I try to make edible with soymilk, raisins, nuts, and cinnamon. I also make a cup of Nescafe, pretty terrible instant coffee, but I’ve yet to find any coffee that tastes decent. For lunch, I’ll be more ambitious and make something with vegetables, beans, avocado, or bread.
From looking around the various supermarkets, I’ve managed to find some imported Lebanese, Indian, and British products. I then buy produce from a local stand, though the variety is pretty limited. Overall, I’ve found decently healthy products, but it requires searching through a lot of junk food. It’s certainly no Whole Foods, but it’s about as good as it gets in Ghana.