When 54-year-old Mohammed Aliyu realised in 2019 that he could not properly move the right part of his body, he knew there was a problem.
Mr Aliyu, who is based in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, is a political correspondent of a national daily.
Sometime in 2018, while living in Jos, Plateau State, he had experienced a persistent headache, which prompted him to go to the hospital for a medical checkup and was diagnosed with high blood pressure.
“They gave me drugs which normalised the blood pressure,” the journalist said.
The years 2018 and 2019 were years full of political activities in Nigeria. Apart from governorship elections held in Ekiti and Osun states, the general elections were also held within the period. And as a political reporter, there was so much pressure on Mr Aliyu.
“I have been practising journalism for 24 years, and I rarely have time for myself. How many times do I eat my wife’s food? I don’t even have that time,” he said in a remorseful tone.
This made him a regular patron of restaurants, eating whatever was available.
Then the problem struck. In the early hours of Christmas Day, 2019, Mr Aliyu was about to get out of bed when he suddenly noticed a lack of coordination on the right side of his body.
“I felt something unusual around my leg. I couldn’t move my right hand and the right side of my face. I was already stuttering. Thank God my wife was around to rush me to the nearby General Hospital in Kubwa, an Abuja community.
“At the hospital, I was told my blood pressure was high. I was also told my cholesterol level was very high. The doctor said my eating habit, among other things, could be responsible for this. After that, the doctor prescribed drugs for me for one month,” he said.
Cholesterol, subset of trans fat
While cholesterol, a fat-like waxy substance, is needed to build body cells, high cholesterol levels are found to be detrimental to health. Studies have shown that a poor and unhealthy diet and eating unsaturated or trans fat can result in high cholesterol.
Adebiyi Obasanjo, a physician cardiologist at the University of Osun Teaching Hospital, explained the nexus between cholesterol and trans fat. He said trans fat generally occurs in foods rich in fat, high calories and sugar, and that its consumption is responsible for many non-communicable diseases.
“The high intake of any food that contains these will increase the level of cholesterol in the body. This causes obesity, and because there is a lot of salt in what people eat, coupled with a lack of exercise, it could increase blood pressure. Also, a lot of refined sugar added to these foods increases the rate of diabetes.
“When you put all these together, the risk of hypertension, diabetes, and high cholesterol, it increases the risk of coronary heart disease, which is associated with the blockage of vessels that supply the blood to the heart. Heart failure comes in when the vessels get blocked. Generally speaking, hypertension, diabetes, abnormal levels of lipids, risk of stroke, the so-called heart attack for lame men, etc, are all associated with the consumption of trans fat,” Mr Obasanjo explained.
Like Aliyu, like many others
For Osaretin Osadebamwen, an environmental reporter with the Nigerian Tribune, junk food like meat pie and egg rolls come in handy whenever he’s on the field reporting.
“Once I eat either of these ( pie or egg roll) with a carbonated drink, I will be fine and will continue to write stories in a hurry”, Mr Osadebamwen humorously explained.
Sometime in 2020, he was diagnosed with high blood pressure.
“I took high blood pressure for granted, and boom, the unthinkable happened, I suffered a partial stroke,” Mr Osadebamwen explained.
On 15 April, 2021, he was writing the report from an earlier event he had attended that day and decided to go home but could not move further after standing up.
“I was still standing over my table when suddenly my right hand went numb and was uncontrollably behaving on its own. My wrist was shaking uncontrollably. Immediately, I felt like urinating. I told my friend I would need his assistance to get to the restroom. I told him not to let people know that I was ill. I got to the restroom and I just couldn’t hold my private part to ease myself. I couldn’t do the last shake-off of the urine because I couldn’t use my hand,” Mr Osadebamwen explained.
He was taken to a nearby clinic where a doctor made a verbal diagnosis of brain damage and he was immediately referred to the National Hospital.
“When I got to the National Hospital, I was placed on a wheelchair, and then I became unconscious,” he said.
The journalist said he was eventually diagnosed with a partial stroke, adding; “I was obese at that time, which they said was part of what led to my high blood pressure.”
Similarly, Blessing Agbeetan, a broadcast journalist with Splash 105.5 FM in Ibadan, said her busy work schedule made her accustomed to snacks like an egg-roll, which is her favourite.
“Most times I am busy trying to come up with programme ideas, trying to edit while also meeting deadlines, and I do not have the luxury of time to look for food or sit somewhere to get a proper meal. So I try as much as possible to munch on something. Also, I get home exhausted and just want to eat something fast that can sustain me for the night,” she said.
A freelance investigative journalist in Lagos, Gabriel Ogunjobi, whose job takes him across different states, said he is not too liberal regarding cultural adaptability. That drives him to always opt for fried junk meals such as bread, burger, biscuit and carbonated drinks while on duty.
“I am from Nigeria’s south-west and I don’t expect to be in the east and immediately get accustomed to their food. I won’t go around asking for my local food, and I don’t want anything to affect my body system that will restrict me from doing my job. That is the drive for taking junk foods most times,” he explained.
Ifedayo Ogunyemi is a senior reporter with the Nigerian Tribune in Ibadan. He said a grocery store directly opposite his office makes it easy for him to walk in and get biscuits whenever he feels the urge to eat.
Snacks common to Nigerian journalists
This reporter randomly reached out to about 50 journalists via a bulk WhatsApp message to determine the most consumed snacks by Nigerian journalists. These journalists are from different media platforms such as online, print, and radio. Most common on their quick menu lists are meat pie, doughnut, and egg-roll. These snacks represented a total of 47 per cent of all the snacks sampled.
About trans fat
A consultant cardiologist at the Ladoke Akintola University of Technology (LAUTECH) Teaching Hospital, Ogbomoso, Akintunde Adeseye, defined trans fat as “unsaturated and the worst type of fat” that are obtained in fried, stored and fast foods like cakes, pies, doughnuts, etc.
He said; “When you talk about trans fat, it ordinarily means partially hydrogenated oil or unsaturated fat. It’s the worst oil that enhances cholesterol formation and induces a very bad pathology in the arteries and the veins. It’s usually obtained from diets and has much impact on health. Too much trans fat is present in processed foods and many fast foods we consume, which causes an increase in heart disease/problems. They are a major risk because they increase heart disease,” he said.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), trans fat or trans-fatty acids (TFAs) are unsaturated fatty acids from either natural or industrial sources. Naturally occurring trans fat comes from ruminants while industrially produced trans fat is formed in an industrial process that adds hydrogen to vegetable oil converting the liquid into solid, resulting in partially hydrogenated oil (PHO). This process is called hydrogenation.
Partially hydrogenated oil
A TFA Project Advisor, Network for Health Equity and Development (NHED), Jerome Mafeni, while speaking with this reporter, said PHOs are the oils that are created by industries for industrial food production.
The health expert noted that PHOs produce food at very high temperatures, leading to the generation of trans fatty acids (TFA). “So most food cooked in those major food establishments that use PHO will generally have a high content of TFA”, he explained.
Data from WHO show that trans fat is a significant contributor to cardiovascular diseases and is responsible for “over 17.9 million deaths annually, representing 32 percent of all global deaths.”
The global health organisation further noted that of these deaths, 85 per cent were due to heart attack and stroke.
WHO said cardiovascular diseases have been the leading cause of death globally for the past three decades, noting that “the biggest killer is coronary heart disease, responsible for 16 per cent of the world’s total deaths.”
The global agency said; “From 2000 to 2019, deaths from ischaemic heart disease rose faster than deaths from any other disease, increasing from more than two million in 2000 to nearly nine million in 2019”.
In Nigeria, out of the 854,000 deaths that occurred in 2019, about 16 per cent (137,000) were attributed to cardiovascular deaths and 3,229 (0.38 per cent) were attributed to TFA-related cardiovascular deaths, a report published by International Centre for Investigative Reporting indicated.
Osaruonamen Ibizugbe (Osas), a journalist and project officer at the Centre for Journalism Innovation and Development, could easily pass for a size six. Unlike other journalists whose reasons for consuming foods high in trans fat come with writing stories in a hurry, Osas said her desperation to get fat is why she daily consumes fried junk foods.
She said; “I eat junk particularly because I feel it contains a lot of fats. I concentrate on eating a lot of it whenever I feel the need to get fat”.
Despite hearing many times that the consumption of fried junk food is not healthy, many journalists this reporter spoke with said they were hearing the word “trans fat” for the first time and are oblivious of the gross consequences of high consumption of trans fatty foods. Many of them believe they are healthy irrespective of their consumption.
Contrary to this belief, Mr Obasanjo, a health expert, said looking healthy can be a camouflage.
“People can look fit outside and not healthy inside. How many of them (journalists) have gone for checkups? Ideally, it would be best if you do a checkup at least once a year,” he said.
Mr Obasanjo advised journalists to always do routine checkups.
On his part, the Executive Director of the Nigerian Heart Foundation, Kingsley Akinroye, said journalists should be concerned about their health because the accumulation of fat in the body has been documented scientifically to cause diseases in the blood vessels.
“It can also be indicated in other conditions like diabetes and cancer. Still, essentially, the most effective is evidenced in the heart and the blood vessels and that’s why there should be a concern because the heart is very sensitive and affects the longevity and the healthy living of the individual,” he said.
According to Healthline, an online medical information centre, a lipid disorder is when someone has high blood levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol and fats called triglycerides or both. “High levels of these substances increase one’s risk of developing heart disease.”
Citing one of his research documents on the severity of lipid problems among LAUTECH staff, the consultant cardiologist, Mr Adeseye, noted that about 25 to 30 per cent of averagely normal people, who do not seem to have any issues, stand the risk of cardiovascular disease, as revealed by research.
Mr Adeseye emphasised the need for awareness creation on trans fat to keep Nigerians informed of the dangers associated with its consumption.
“To create awareness, we need to educate people that trans fat can substantially affect their health and can increase the rate of cardiovascular disease. Trans fat raises their heart cholesterol, reduces good cholesterol, and increases their chances of diabetes and hypertension. It can be modulated by what you eat, which means it can be controlled once you avoid food that induces fat. So proper education is key”, the cardiologist explained.
(Mohammed Aliyu’s real name has been changed in this report. He prefers to stay anonymous because he doesn’t want to attract attention from colleagues. He also prefers the name of his organisation not to be mentioned.)
This Investigative Report was supported by Corporate Accountability and Public Participation Africa (CAPPA) and partner, Global Health Advocacy Incubator (GHAI), under her #TransfatFreeNigeria Project.