In South Africa, National Nutrition Week and National Obesity Week are celebrated every year from 9 – 15 October and 15 – 19 October respectively to create awareness among consumers about obesity and the importance of eating healthy.

The Statistics and Causes

In 2016, a South African study found that 68% of women and 31% of men in the country are overweight or obese and about 20% of women and 3% of men are severely obese. Roughly 13.3% of children younger than five years are overweight or obese.

There are various possible causes that lead to being overweight or obese but four main factors can be highlighted. This includes a lack of knowledge, poor diet, physical inactivity and inappropriate early childhood feeding practices.

Unhealthy diets and lifestyles are among the main risk factors for the development of chronic diseases, and shockingly enough, the risk starts in childhood and builds up throughout life.  All these risk factors can be modified to help people live healthier lifestyles.

Poor diet is the leading cause of death and is one of the biggest contributors to chronic diseases. According to the World Health Organisation a poor diet can be defined as diets that are low in whole grains, high in sodium, or low in fruits, nuts and seeds, or vegetables.

Ultra-processed foods

Ultra-processed foods that are high in fats, sugar and/or salt contribute to obesity and chronic diseases such as insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, high blood pressure and stroke. Ultra-processed foods are formulated and packaged in such a way to make them intensely palatable, have a long shelf life and eliminate the need for cooking.

Tasty, easy and convenient.

Studies found that among respondents 15 years and older, they consumed large amounts of sugary drinks, ate fried foods at least once a week and rarely ate fruits and vegetables. But it didn’t magically start in their teens – the consumption of poor food and drink choices starts at an early age with children age 6-8 months being given salty snacks and sugary drinks! Children of this age until 2 years of age should not be having any foods that do not contribute to their high nutrient needs. Therefore, they shouldn’t be consuming any empty calories!

In Western countries, the frequency of eating food prepared outside the home (take-aways, eating out, etc.) is increasing and this is most apparent and best documented in the US. In 1970, 26% of the food dollar in the USA was spent on food prepared outside the home. By 1995, it had climbed to 39% and was projected to rise to 53% by 2010. The manufacturing and consumption of ultra-processed foods are displacing home cooking and consumption of unprocessed or minimally processed foods.

Simultaneously, the prevalence of obesity and other diet-related chronic diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and some common cancers, is increasing worldwide.  The Global Burden of Disease data suggest that, by 2025, 72.3% of chronic related illness and deaths will occur in low-middle-income countries.

Evidence shows that the more ultra-processed foods are consumed, the poorer the overall nutritional quality in terms of factors and nutrients. Studies showed that energy, carbohydrate, and added sugar content and in some cases saturated fat level increase significantly with the dietary contribution of ultra-processed food.

Recommendations

Leading international experts* and professional health organizations recommend increased consumption of plant-based food, such as vegetables and fruit, legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains and locally produced, home-prepared foods.  Consumption of meat and processed meat, ultra-processed food that is high in fat, sugar and salt should be limited and sugary drinks should be avoided.

* These experts include the WHO, EAT Lancet Commission, American Heart Association and the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

In line with increasing evidence emphasising the importance of eating a variety of foods, especially plant-based food, the theme for the National Nutrition Week and National Obesity Week 2019 is: “Make Eating Whole Foods a Way of Life”

  • Choose a variety of unprocessed/minimally processed food choices
  • Eat plenty of vegetables and fruit every day
  • Eat dry beans, peas, lentils and soya regularly
  • Plan and prepare healthy home prepared meals rather than buying ready-to-eat meals/snacks or eating out frequently

Choose a variety of unprocessed/minimally processed food choices

  • Choose a variety of foods that are affordable and in season. This can be achieved by drawing up a food budget, keeping this budget in mind when planning for the week ahead and writing down your thoughts in the form of a meal plan and then compiling a shopping list, only buying items that are needed.
  • Enjoying a healthy eating plan also means preparing food in healthy ways, for instance eating raw vegetables and using cooking methods such as boiling, grilling and baking instead of frying.
  • In choosing a variety of food to eat, make portion control a habit in order to avoid overeating.
  • Try to eat regularly, this means that if you choose to eat three meals per day you do this most days of the week.
  • Try not to skip meals as this can lead to feelings of hunger and low blood sugar (like dizziness, shaking or loss of concentration). Breakfast especially is an important meal.
  • Experiment with different food combinations, tastes, textures and methods of encouraging smaller children to eat if they refuse many foods.

Eat plenty of vegetables and fruit every day

  • Eating plenty of vegetables and fruit regularly can help prevent chronic diseases, including heart disease, high blood pressure, strokes, some types of cancer and type 2 diabetes. These foods are also high in fibre (roughage), which ensures proper bowel functioning and helps to prevent constipation and related symptoms like bloating.
  • The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that you should eat more than five portions (400 grams) of vegetables and fruit combined per day.
  • Try to include a variety of vegetables and fruit in meal plans. Frozen and dried vegetables can be incorporated as part of a healthy eating plan.
  • Include both cooked and raw vegetables and salads in meals
  • Eat a yellow vegetable (carrots, pumpkin, butternut) or a dark green vegetable (broccoli, spinach, etc) at least once a day.
  • Add extra vegetables to recipes such as stews, curries, stir-fries, salads, soups, sandwiches and stews or brown rice or whole-wheat pasta dishes or to egg dishes (scrambled eggs or omelettes). Baby spinach, tomatoes, carrots, beetroot and sundried tomatoes are so easy to add to dishes.
  • Grating vegetables into dishes can help to “hide” them in foods and increase acceptability. Add raw vegetables such as carrots or shredded cabbage to lunchboxes. Include a fresh fruit or fresh vegetable as a snack between meals.
  • Always wash vegetables and fruit well in clean water before preparing, cooking and eating.
  • Vegify your favourite recipes by swapping some of the animal-based foods (meat, dairy and eggs) with whole plant-based alternatives. Meat can be replaced with vegetables like mushrooms, aubergine and baby marrow or with legumes like lentils, beans and chickpeas.
  • Portion sizes of vegetables can be more generous if a variety of vegetables is not available.
  • Children are more likely to enjoy eating vegetables when they have eaten a variety from an early age (i.e. from 6 months) and when they see their parents enjoying vegetables.
  • Get children into the habit of eating raw vegetable sticks or fruit when they are hungry between meals.

Eat dry beans, peas, lentils and soya regularly

  • Eating dry beans, peas and lentils regularly, i.e. at least 4 times per week, can help prevent chronic diseases, including heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer and overweight, as well as improving gut health.
  • Dry beans and lentils provide a valuable and cost-effective source of protein, some vitamins, plant-based iron and other substances that have anti-cancer properties. They are rich in slowly digested starch and fibre, helping to control blood sugar levels.
  • Soaking beans and chickpeas overnight in plenty of water will reduce cooking time and help to reduce bloating. Drain the soaking water and use fresh water for cooking.
  • Use a large enough pot and cover with enough water as they increase 2 – 3 times in size.
  • Add seasonings such as bay leaves, onion, garlic and/or peppercorns when cooking, but leave salt, acidic foods and condiments, such as tomatoes, lemon juice and vinegar until after cooking as it can harden beans. Add herbs and spices near the end of the cooking process.
  • Microwaving does not reduce cooking time for dry beans, peas and lentils.
  • As canned foods have a higher salt (sodium) content, if you choose to use canned beans, peas and lentils for convenience, they should be rinsed before you eat/cook with them.
  • Lentils are excellent to introduce legumes into family meals as they can be easily incorporated into any mince dish (lasagne/ bolognaise/ meatballs, etc)

Plan and prepare healthy home prepared meals rather than buying ready-to-eat meals/snacks or eating out frequently

  • Eating at home provides your family with the opportunity to eat a variety of healthy foods. It allows one to use healthy ingredients and to be able to control what and how much of each ingredient goes into a meal. Many commercially prepared foods and snacks are high in saturated fat, salt, and/or sugar.
  • Create a menu plan for the week ahead for breakfast, lunch and supper. Be realistic. If you only have 20 minutes to prepare a meal, then do not choose a recipe that is complicated. This will also help you to get comfortable with the basic steps of a recipe or to prepare food.
  • If you have the capacity, double amounts of regularly eaten foods such as brown rice or dry beans/peas/lentils. You can also do the same with your favourite family recipes so that these leftovers can be eaten on the other days of the week or can be frozen or rethawed when needed.
  • Plan to use leftovers for a few breakfasts, lunches or dinners throughout the week to reduce time spent in the kitchen.
  • Involving children in food preparation (maybe by asking them to read the recipe out loud or mix ingredients) is not only a fun thing to do, but also a great way to teach them healthy eating habits.
  • Make meals a time of sharing and being together as a family – try to eat at least one meal per day together, preferably at the table.

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