World Health Day: COVID-19 adds urgency to trans fat elimination

By Olakunle Atoyebi

Today, on World Health Day, as we celebrate nurses and other health professionals for keeping us healthy, let’s remember that now more than ever, we must play our part, too, and do all within our power to keep critical healthcare workers safe.

The best way to do so is by staying healthy ourselves.

Health workers here at home and across the globe serve as our first line of defense against diseases and other health threats like the novel coronavirus, which continues to spread in Nigeria. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to plain sight the burden these caregivers carry as they work to ensure the rest of us enjoy good health.

People of all ages can be infected by the new coronavirus. But people with pre-existing conditions appear to be more vulnerable to becoming severely ill with the virus. Those with cardiovascular and chronic respiratory diseases, as well as diabetes and cancer, are at particular risk.

Nigerians with pre-existing conditions should follow medical advice, quit smoking, avoid alcohol and drugs, and pursue a healthy lifestyle. A key component of a healthy lifestyle is a healthy diet. One harmful food component to avoid is trans fat. We can’t stop stressing this on World health day.

Trans fat occurs naturally in small, safe quantities in milk and meats, but it is added in unhealthy quantities to many cooking oils that are used in packaged, processed and fried foods.

Consumption lowers good cholesterol, raises bad cholesterol, and increases the risk of coronary heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and other cognitive diseases. Trans fat consumption is estimated to have killed more than 500,000 people in a year, including 1,261 Nigerians.

The World Health Organisation, WHO, has called for the elimination of industrially-produced trans fat from the global food supply by 2023. The spread of COVID-19 lends new urgency to this call.

Almost 17 years ago, Denmark became the first country to lower the amount of trans fat in food to a level that is not expected to be harmful. Last year, the European Union took similar steps, and dozens of countries have done the same, including the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Brazil and South Africa.

Now more than ever, Nigerians are at risk of suffering severe health problems due to trans fat consumption – and they are largely flying blind: food labels currently are not required to show trans fat content.

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As we mark World Health Day today, lockdowns in Lagos and other cities are curtailing access to food for millions of Nigerians; the rise of junk food also increases the risk of exposure to trans fat.

Nigerian leaders have taken note, and the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control, NAFDAC, is working on regulations to keep Nigerians safe from toxic trans fat.

It is vital for NAFDAC to finalise and implement these regulations expeditiously, in accordance with international best practices endorsed by WHO.

Swift and strong trans fat regulations will be a gift to every Nigerian. They will also help to safeguard our fragile health system, and keep our beloved health workers safe.

That’s not only the right thing to do: We owe it to them— today and every day— as we celebrate World Health Day.

Olakunle Atoyebi, a public health advocate, wrote in from Ilorin, Kwara State.


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