Despite what we know about the impact of food choices on our health, overweight and obesity are still on the rise in South Africa, alongside a host of other preventable diseases that can be attributed to unhealthy lifestyles.
Thanks to our industrialised food system, and far greater, ultra-processed and fast food choices aimed at our “convenience”, we’ve got further away from eating the whole foods that are really good for us.
This is the message a coalition of health professional associations, including the Department of Health, is highlighting in October across both National Nutrition Week and National Obesity Week, which runs from 9 to 19 October.
This year’s theme, “Make eating whole foods a way of life”, focuses the country’s attention on the importance of consuming a mostly plant-based diet of mainly unprocessed and minimally processed foods. Whole grains, fresh vegetables and fruits, legumes, nuts and seeds are health-promoting foods that are nutrient-dense, high in fibre, and free from food additives, added sugar, fat and salt.
Whole foods offer a wide range of choices and enable a family lifestyle centered on healthy eating choices which, for children, can help cement these healthy lifestyle habits for years to come. The Nutrition Society of South Africa (NSSA) points out that the risks of unhealthy diets and lifestyles start in childhood and build up over our lives. Severe obesity, which is life-threatening, affects around 20% of women and 3% of men.
These concerns are shared by the Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa, which reports that every day 225 South Africans die of cardiovascular disease. Only a small proportion of the deaths are age-related.
The campaign is also supported by MaTCH, the Maternal, Adolescent and Child Health Institute, an indigenous non-profit organisation providing a broad range of HIV and TB-focused assistance. Lenore Spies, the technical advisor of MaTCH, says: “Limiting the intake of ultra-processed foods and rather eating mainly whole foods plays an important role in a healthy pregnancy as well as ensuring good nutrition for children, families and those whose immune functioning may be compromised. A diet based on a variety of whole foods, which are foods in, or close to, their natural state, provides us with a broad spectrum of nutrients we need to safeguard our health, including dietary fibre.”
Another important aspect of healthy eating is getting into the habit of reading the ingredient lists on the labels.
An ultra-processed food or drink is one that usually has five or more ingredients listed on the label, and typically a number of these are not recognisable as foods you would use in home cooking.