From 9 to 15 October 2023, the Department of Health and its collaborators are promoting the National Nutrition Week 2023 and encouraging South Africans to ‘Feel Good with Food’.

Each day, what we eat impacts on our physical and cognitive abilities, as well as our emotional well-being.  Healthy eating powers our performance at work and school and enables us to enjoy our lives more fully.

Unfortunately, many South African diets include plenty of foods and drinks that are high in sugar, salt and fat, while low in vegetables, fruits and wholegrains.  There is also a high consumption of highly processed fast foods over meals using whole foods that are prepared and enjoyed at home.

Poor food and drink choices often start in early childhood.  The 2016 SADHS (South African Demographic and Health Survey) found that 18 percent of children between 6 and 8 months of age consumed salty snacks and 4 percent consumed sugary drinks the day before the survey.  This increased significantly to 64 and 33 percent respectively, when it came to toddlers between 18 and 23 months of age.  To prevent both over- and under nutrition, children between 6 and 24 months of age should not be consuming any foods or drinks that do not contribute to their high nutritional needs.  It is important to note that the same survey reported that around 13.3% of South African children under five years are overweight or obese, which is more than double the global average of 6.1%.

When it comes to nutrition and children, South Africa battles on two fronts.  Dr Edzani Mphaphuli, Executive Director of the Grow Great Campaign is focused on the impact of under-nutrition.  She says, “While we have these high rates of childhood overweight and obesity, we also have one in four South African children under five years affected by stunting, a medical condition that robs them of reaching their full potential and makes them more vulnerable to developing Type 2 diabetes and other nutrition-related diseases as adults.”

Maria van der Merwe, the President of ADSA (Association for Dietetics in South Africa) says, “Globally, nutrition experts recommend increasing consumption of plant-based foods including vegetables and fruits, whole-grains, nuts and seeds, as well as focusing on meals prepared at home from whole foods.  South African families, schools and workplaces need to make it easier for children and adults to make healthy eating choices because nutritious foods are accessible to them each day.”

UNICEF South Africa has an ongoing focus on the impact of healthy eating and physical activity in the lives of South African children.  Lea Castro, UNICEF’S Nutrition Officer says, “Our most recent research showed that schools have a critical role to play in promoting healthy lifestyles and healthy eating, and empowering children to feel good with food.  We found limited healthy food options available in schools and low levels of nutrition knowledge amongst both learners and educators resulting in a low intake of vegetables and fruits, and a high intake of foods high in fat, sugar and salt.  This can be transformed by ensuring that the foods available in and around schools are healthy, and by focusing on including the importance of healthy eating and the South African Guidelines for Healthy Eating in the curriculum. School-going children need healthy food and physical activity not only for their physical development, but to support their academic performance and mental well-being.”

It’s not just the youth who need more awareness of the South African Guidelines for Health Eating. Parents, educators and employers will all benefit from focusing on these healthy eating principles.

Dr Elize Symington, the President of the Nutrition Society of South Africa (NSSA) says, “Most of what we eat each day should consist of unprocessed or minimally processed plant foods such as vegetables, fruits, legumes and whole grains.  Variety is important and so, foods from other food groups should be included in our meals, but in smaller proportions, such as unprocessed meat, eggs, fish and chicken. Sugar, salt and fat should be used sparingly in food preparation or at the table.  Drinking water is an important part of healthy eating and should therefore be the beverage of choice.  It’s best to avoid sugary drinks. Probably, the easiest way to improve the quality of our diets is to prepare most of our meals at home where we have full control over the ingredients used and the portion sizes.  Meal planning helps to minimise the time and effort that it takes to prepare lunchboxes for school and work so that you are not reliant on unhealthy fast foods or tuckshop foods when you get hungry during the school or workday.”

Developing your home-cooking skills and meal planning efficiency can result in healthier meals, better portion control and adds enjoyment to home life.  It’s a good idea to get your children involved in meal preparation as this improves their nutrition knowledge and life skills development while creating opportunities for family bonding.

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