Sadza is NOT fattening... Excess Calories Are!

In the interest of full disclosure, I will let you know that I am a Shona girl who loves her sadza. In fact, I will confess to loving sadza so much that I freeze whatever is left in the pot and save it for the days when waiting 30 minutes for a pot to cook is simply out of the question.

Unfortunately, my beloved staple is constantly blamed for a slew of health problems. In boarding school, it was the girls who claimed sadza gave them “ulcers”. They avoided it but as provisions dwindled and hunger struck, ulcers were healed. Today, it is the weight-watchers who blame sadza for weight regained after following a strict diet. It is the diabetics choosing to sustain themselves on meat and vegetables for fear of increased blood sugars.

As a dietician, I am consistently bombarded with questions from Zimbabweans and, indeed, the rest of the sadza/isitshwala/ugali/pap/posho/nshima/fufu-eating community: “Is sadza healthy?”, “Is it fattening?”, “Is it good for diabetics?”, “How much should I eat?” and so on. The questions are many; the answers not quite straight forward, but one thing is for sure, not all sadza is created equal.

Is sadza healthy?

My Sekuru (grandfather) always used to tell me the pretty, soft, white stuff that we served with relish was not sadza but an imitation of the real thing. At that time, I thought it was old age speaking, but now I understand what he meant. Carbohydrates (carbs) are the major nutrient in sadza and they can help to maintain weight, improve blood sugars, prevent certain cancers and promote satiety.

Healthy carbs are those that are minimally processed and high in fibre. For my Sekuru, “real” sadza was made from millet, sorghum and straight run maize meal (mugaiwa). Pre-teen me, however, associated those grains with a rural, primitive lifestyle and wanted the super refined, soft, white sadza. Sekuru was right; the fluffy white stuff that I preferred went down so smoothly because it was highly refined – a process that removes most of the vitamins and minerals of the whole maize grain.
Sadza is NOT fattening... Excess Calories Are!
Even though the government mandated that some essential nutrients be added back to the refined maize meal, it still remains nutritionally inferior since fibre is still missing and not all the other nutrients are added back. Sadza, whether it is “super refined” white, “mugaiwa” grey or “mhunga” (millet) brown, is healthy as it provides carbohydrates and energy to the body. However, the refined “white” sadza that most of us prefer is not the best choice as much of the nutrition has been stripped from it. To ensure maximum nutrition, choose the least refined grain available: the darker the grain, the better the nutrition.

Is sadza fattening?
So, if sadza is a carb…then it must be fattening, right? Well, not so fast. Carbohydrates have been the unfortunate villain of a weight loss industry that has labelled them as being the “bad” nutrient. But in case you have not received the memo, let me share the news with you, “Carbs are NOT fattening… excess calories are!” Weight control is about ensuring a balance between calories consumed (what you eat) and calories burnt (what you use). Too many calories equal weight gain, too few calories result in weight loss and just the right balance equals weight maintenance.

There are however, some lifestyle choices that contribute to our ever-expanding waistlines:

1. We eat the same size portions as we did 20 years ago and yet we are now less active (eating more; burning less)

Our lives today have been enhanced with the luxuries of modern technology and entertainment. We sit in front of televisions and computers for hours on end, drive to most places, dread exercise and yet we eat the same amount of food (if not more) as we did when we were a lot more active – walking everywhere, working in fields from dawn till dusk, playing “Christopher Columbus” and “sweetie”, you get the picture.

2. We serve sadza with large portions of meat and little vegetables
The taste of sadza is only as good as the relish it is served with and so to make sure that every morsel that enters our mouth is loaded with flavour, we pack our plates with plenty of relish. Unfortunately, the increased availability of animal protein has led to a reversal of our vegetable to meat proportions. Instead of using meat as flavouring for the vegetables, we now use the vegetables to add flavour to the meat. Animal products contain more fat (and calories) than vegetables and, coupled with the lack of exercise, our calorie-exercise ratio is thrown off balance.

3. We use maize meal that is highly refined and low in fibre

Fibre curbs hunger by promoting satiety. In fact, when it comes to fighting the battle of the bulge, studies continuously demonstrate that people who consume enough fibre tend to have healthier body weights than those who do not. Tanzanian Food Composition Tables show that people who consume millet with sorghum-based “ugali” (sadza) consume 22 percent less ugali than those that eat maize meal-based ugali. The difference in portion size can directly be credited to the fibre content of the millet with sorghum.

The higher the fibre, the smaller the portion thus the greater the satiety.
The right proportions of starch, vegetables and protein will ensure a balanced diet (Photograph courtesy The African Pot Nutrition)

Is sadza good for diabetics?
There is a fallacy that diabetics should not have any carbs because carbs increase blood sugars. One of the most effective methods for controlling blood sugars is to ensure the adherence to a healthy, well-balanced diet. Carbohydrates are part of a healthy meal plan and the body’s preferred source of energy. It is okay for a diabetic to have sadza but what is important is the portion size, the type of maize meal used and meal balance.

Since blood sugars respond directly to the amount of food eaten, portion control is essential. The bigger the portion, the greater the spike in blood sugars. A simple method of estimating portion size is the “Plate Method” which recommends that 1/2 your plate be fruits and/or non-starchy vegetables (tsunga, broccoli, covo and the like), 1/4 be protein foods (beans, chicken, fish etc) and the other 1/4 sadza. Remember, it is a plate, not a platter and if the sadza portion exceeds the size of 1 1/2 fists, then the portion may be too large. (Those with larger fists get a bigger portion of sadza, which also correlates with their possible higher caloric needs.)

The bottom line
• Go for the whole grain. The further away from white, the higher the fibre, the healthier the grain and the better the nutrition. This is especially important for people with diabetes as the fibre in the grain helps control blood sugars.

• Watch your portions. If your portion size is larger than 1 ½ fists…you may be eating too much.

• As a rule of thumb: make half your plate vegetables and/or fruit; a quarter meat; and the other quarter sadza.

•Enjoy sadza! For what it’s worth, refined maize meal does not contain less nutrition than the white rice and regular pasta that we may want to substitute it with.

Nutrient information for weight watchers:

Maize sadza (no specific mealie meal type)
Kcal (KJ) – 123.8 (515.2)
Protein (g) – 2.7
Fat(g) – 1.2
Total carbs(g) – 25.6
Fibre (g) – 2.4

Average portion size (g)/ Calories Consumed – 450/ 557
Maize + sorghum sadza*
Kcal (KJ) – 110 (460)
Protein (g) – 3
Fat(g) – 0.9
Total carbs(g) – 24.7
Fibre (g) – 4.3

Average portion size (g)/ Calories Consumed -350/385
Sorghum + millet sadza*
Kcal (KJ) – 112 (468)
Protein (g) – 3.4
Fat(g) – 0.9
Total carbs(g) – 24.7
Fibre (g) – 4.3
Average portion size (g)/ Calories Consumed – 350/392

* African Pot Recommended
(Source: Lukmanji Z., Hertzmark E., Mlingi N., Assey V., Ndossi G., Fawzi W., Tanzania food composition tables. MUHAS-TFNC, HSPH, Dar es Salaam Tanzania- 2008)

Please note: The contents of this article are for informational purposes and not intended to provide personal medical advice. Please be sure to seek the advice of your healthcare practitioner regarding any specific medical conditions. This information does not endorse any particular brands.

This article was written for Her Zimbabwe by C.Chipo Msora-Kasago, M.A, R.D. Chipo a Registered Dietician and graduate of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) African Area Studies Program (Emphasis on Public Health). She has a keen interest in the nutritional prevention and management of chronic disease on the African continent and works with people of African descent to improve personal diets and overall health. Chipo is the chief contributor for the health and wellness blog, The African Pot Nutrition ( 

Follow her on twitter (@thedietitian) like her on Facebook (The African Pot Nutrition).

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