The Libyan diet can be described as being both Mediterranean and North African, although these are very broad terms and regional variations are seen from country to country, and within different regions of a single country. Climatic differences and administrative boundaries have historically segregated Libya into three distinct regions with major culinary differences, simply known today as the Eastern (Cyrenaica: influenced by the Middle East), Western (Tripolitania, with strong ties to the Maghreb) and Southern (Fezzan, nomadic desert existence) regions. The fourth recently added Central (Gulf of Sirt) region acts as a transition zone between East and West in terms of dietary makeup.
An FAO analysis of yearly production, import and consumption, shows that the major staple of the Libyan diet is wheat, mainly in the form of bread, couscous and pasta, but also as porridges (aseeda, zamita and bazeen). Rice is another major staple in the Eastern region and has become very popular in Western Libya in the past few centuries. The largest source of vegetable protein comes from chickpeas, lentils, dried beans and fava beans; major animal protein sources being lamb (mutton), beef, camel, chicken, eggs and canned tuna. Unlike neighboring Tunisia and most other Mediterranean countries, consumption of fresh fish and seafood is very low despite the fact that most of the population lives along the coastal region. Seasonal fruits and vegetables are widely available, and fat is mainly sourced locally as olive oil or imported corn and sunflower oil. There is a very high intake of subsidized sugar, especially in the tea drunk throughout the day.
In relation to other Maghreb countries Libya has the lowest cereal but highest fat and meat intake of the region. Compared to other Mediterranean diets, Libyans consume more fruit and vegetables than their French, Italian and Spanish counterparts. Despite the fact that fat consumption is relatively high, it remains much lower than the statistics recorded for southern European countries.
The dietary make-up has remained quite stable throughout the past 40 years. The percentage of the three major food groups which make up the daily energy supply has slightly fluctuated between 10-11% for protein, 22-27% for fat and 62-67% for carbohydrates. Despite these numbers the quantities of food consumption have increased 1.5 times from about 450 kg/person/day (2061 kcal daily) in 1967 to 700 kg/person/day (3327 kcal daily) in 2001, bearing in mind that the recommend daily intake is only 2,144 kcal. This generally means that we are eating larger portions of the same food. It is important to note here that these figures represent quantities of food available for consumption. The actual intake varies from person to person depending upon local availability and purchasing power. Household waste must also be taken into consideration.
The FAO defines the fat-to-energy ratio as “as the percentage of energy derived from fat in the total supply of energy”. It sets the minimum requirement at 15% and a maximum of 35%. Libya is quickly encroaching upon the maximum limit as fat intake increased from 22 to 27% in the period from 1965 to 2002. This is a clear sign that Libya is going through a “nutrition transition” which according to the FAO “include(s) both quantitative and qualitative changes in the diet. The adverse dietary changes include shifts in the structure of the diet towards a higher energy density diet with a greater role for fat and added sugars in foods, greater saturated fat intake (mostly from animal sources), reduced intakes of complex carbohydrates and dietary fiber, and reduced fruit and vegetable intakes”.
Simple carbohydrates (refined cereals and sugars) and fat make up over three quarters of the Libyan diet making it very high in calories but low in nutritional value. As such eating more does not necessarily reflect better health. Although specific research about the amount of vitamin and mineral intake in Libya is unavailable, there is a general consensus (deduced from food supply statistics and health figures) that the Libyan diet is significantly low in vitamins A, B1, B2, calcium and iron. A high occurrence of anemia, especially in children and women is an indicator of iron deficiency, which may be attributed to excessive tea drinking (tea prevents the absorption of iron) rather than a lack of iron in the diet. On the other hand, the Libyan diet was found to provide a sufficient supply of potassium, sodium and vitamin C. Excessive sodium intake is also a major problem as a large fraction of the population suffers from high blood pressure.
In part 3 of this series we’ll look at how farming and food security affect the Libyan diet.
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