ACTION NEEDED: Playwright Bonnie Greer (right) with Ali Orhan of the British Heart Foundation
THOMAS AFAM, a Nigerian-born business owner from Manchester had always enjoyed cooking foods originating from the country of his birth.
In particular, his jollof rice and okra soup dishes invariably went down a storm at family parties.
But all that changed two years ago after being diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes and high blood pressure.
“It was a real shock,” he recalls. “I’ve always enjoyed cooking African dishes; it’s something I find very relaxing after a long day at work. However, after my doctor told me the news, I had to take another look at my diet and lifestyle. He told me that if I didn’t, I could be putting the health of my heart at risk.”
The 57-year-old has now made major changes to his lifestyle. It slowly dawned on him that the high amounts of salt and saturated fats in the dishes he often cooked were having a negative impact on his health. Now he cooks without salt and oil, eating more fresh fruit and vegetables and taking more exercise.
And he has become something of a health evangelist. "I tell everyone in my family and many of my friends to look again at the way they cook our traditional foods. I now realise it’s really important for black [people] to be aware of the dangers to their health and take practical steps to do something about it so they don’t suffer in the future. I consider myself to be one of the lucky ones,” he confesses.
Over the past decade, there have been several studies highlighting the fact that black Britons are more likely than other ethnic groups to suffer from the kind of health problems that Afam has. However, it seems as though the important health messages are not getting through.
Research published by the British Heart Foundation last month found that one in four African Caribbeans do not realise they are at a higher risk of high blood pressure, a major factor in developing heart problems, than any ethnic minority group in the UK.
The study showed more than half of African Caribbean adults (51 percent) did not know the recommended ideal blood pressure level, and less than half of those surveyed (46 percent) knew the recommended maximum daily allowance for salt is one teaspoon.
According to June Davison, a cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation, there are specific reasons why African Caribbean communities are more vulnerable.
"We definitely think there's a genetic element why this population is at higher risk,” she says. “But the key things are that this group is more likely to have high blood pressure and much more likely to have diabetes, and these are key risk factors for stroke and heart disease."
Health chiefs have been grappling with how to make awareness campaigns target ing minority communities more effective. An event held in May 2012 called Heartfelt, organised by the British Heart Foundation and mental health charity The Afiya Trust, with support from NHS Southwark, targeted women in a bid to get key health messages across to the community.
The 120 women who attended heard how everyday tasks such as housework and walking their children or grandchildren to school were all forms of physical activity that could help reduce their risk of heart disease, diabetes and stroke. They were also shown healthier ways of cooking with traditional African-Caribbean ingredients, such as plantain and cassava, which also help reduce the risk of heart problems.
Playwright and author Bonnie Greer who spoke at the event urged the black community to take action on this health issue. She said: “We are in the middle of an obesity and diabetes emergency, and the health and care of the heart through eating well, regular exercise like walking, and a good night's sleep are of key importance."