Good nutrition, in other words eating healthily, is a key component of a healthy lifestyle. Healthy eating and physical activity can help one to achieve and maintain a healthy weight; and reduce the risk of non-communicable diseases (NDCs) like diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and cancer. The risk starts in childhood and builds up throughout life, especially if one does not eat a healthy diet and is not physically active. The concept of optimising nutrition in the first 1 000 days (the period from conception to the first two years of life) is important for the prevention of over- and under-nutrition. Nutrition has many benefits for both the prevention and management of disease, as well as physical and mental wellness.  Therefore, good nutrition promotes overall health and wellbeing.

Obesity is one of the major public health concerns facing South Africans, and its impact and cost extends to individuals, families, communities, the health service and society as a whole. The number of people within South Africa who are overweight or obese has been rising over the past few decades.

According to the 2016 South African Demographic and Health Survey and the 2012 South African Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (SANHANES):

  • 68 per cent of women and 31 per cent of men are overweight/obese
  • 20 per cent of women and three per cent of men are severely obese
  • 3 per cent of children younger than five years are overweight/obese
  • 2 per cent of children between the ages of six and 14 years are overweight/obese

A body weight that is higher than what is considered a healthy weight for a given height, indicates overweight or obesity. Body mass index, or BMI, is used as a screening tool for overweight or obesity in adults, as being overweight or obese can increase your risk for certain diseases. The BMI is a measure of a person’s weight adjusted for height, and is calculated using your weight in kilograms divided by the square of height in metres, i.e. BMI = kg/m2. If you are an adult and your BMI is:

  • less than 18.5, it falls in the underweight range
  • 18.5 to <25, it falls within the normal range
  • 25 to <30, it means you are overweight
  • 30 or higher, it means you are obese
  • 35 or higher, it means you are severely obese


It is important to remember that BMI does not distinguish between excess fat, muscle, or bone mass and it does not provide any indication of the distribution of fat among individuals, which is also associated with health risk. For example, individuals with more fat around their trunk/abdominal area are at a higher risk for certain diseases compared to those with more excess fat around their hip and leg area.

There are also certain things that can influence your BMI, such as muscles (muscular individuals and athletes may have a higher BMI because of their increased muscle mass) and age (older adults tend to have more body fat than younger adults). Though it is a useful screening tool, but should not be used as the only marker for being at risk of disease. Other screening tests include blood pressure measurements, blood glucose measurements, and blood fat (e.g. cholesterol) measurements.

The developing human brain requires all essential nutrients to form and to maintain its structure. Infant and child cognitive development is dependent on adequate nutrition. Children who do not receive sufficient nutrition are at high risk of exhibiting degrees of impaired cognitive skills.

A dietitian working in mental health or psychiatry plays a crucial role in supporting individuals with mental health conditions by addressing the connection between nutrition and mental well-being.  These dietitians work closely with mental health professionals as part of a multi-disciplinary team to provide individual and comprehensive care.  They may address specific concerns such as nutrient deficiencies, weight management, emotional eating, or disordered eating patterns that can impact mental health.  Dietitians in mental health also educate clients about the relationship between nutrition and mental well being, helping them make informed choices to support their mental health goals. 

Your first drink of choice should be water. The South African Food Based Dietary Guidelines state that you should: ‘Drink lots of clean, safe water everyday’. Choose clean water to drink first. Low fat or fat free milk (with the exception of children who should drink full cream milk), unsweetened tea and coffee may be used as alternatives. Limit sugar-sweetened beverages, including sweetened fruit juices.

Sugary drinks are drinks that are sweetened with various forms of added sugars. Examples include fizzy drinks, teas or coffees (when adding sugar), flavoured waters, flavoured milk, drinking yoghurt and sport and energy drinks. Fruit juices have a similar energy and sugar content as drinks that have added sugar and are therefore regarded as sugary drinks.

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