OPINION | Mayday, Mayday! Your body needs your help!


Covid-19 has turned the whole 2020 on its head: Quarantine and lockdown meant cancelling or postponing many events, trips, plans and business ventures. Every aspect of how we interact has changed, and we don’t know what lies around the corner.

However, one thing that has, and will always, remain unchanged is our body’s biological need for nutritional fuel, and its role in our health.

Now, possibly more than ever, the importance of good nutrition is imperative. This year’s theme for the National Nutrition and Obesity Week 2020 (9-19 October) is Good Nutrition for Good Immunity. But what is good nutrition? And how can it influence our immunity?

It is well-researched that people who are poorly nourished are at greater risk for bacterial, viral and other infections. For normal functioning of the body, we need a variety of nutrients, and the immune system relies on the presence of various micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) from our diet in order to perform optimally.

Diets rich in whole, unprocessed or minimally processed foods score the highest in nutrient quality. Good nutrition also means eating these foods in adequate amounts.

In contrast to this, a diet high in ultra-processed food (which are mostly packaged and marketed as convenience food, such as chips, ice creams, chocolates, confectionary and ready-made meals) often contain far more fat, sugar, salt and energy than whole foods, and generally lacks in nutrients. Diets rich in these foods negatively impacts our ability to fight infections and disease.

It also increases the risk for overweight and obesity, and noncommunicable disease such as type 2 diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and certain cancers. 

Eating energy dense and nutrient poor foods is unfortunately a common occurrence globally and locally: 

The South African Demographic and Health Survey (SADHS), completed in 2016, found that among respondents 15 years and older, 35.7% consumed sugary drinks (including fruit juice) the day or night before the survey,  with an average volume consumption of 607.2 mL.  About 36.5% of respondents consume fried foods at least once per week, while vegetable and fruit consumption the previous day or night was only 48.8% and 59.9% respectively.

This unhealthy consumption trend also starts at an early age: the survey showed 18% of children aged 6-8 months consumed salty snacks and 4% consumed sugary drinks the day or night before the survey. This increased quickly to 64% and 33%, respectively, for children aged 18 - 23 months.

This highlights the importance of nutrition education to parents and caregivers, as children younger than two years of age are solely dependent on foods that parents and caregivers provide.

Change however starts with the awareness that the status quo is no longer serving us. Nutrition security and dietary practices are multifaceted problems, with many social determinants contributing to an individual’s ability to make certain food choices and follow a healthy dietary pattern.

There is no one-size-fits-all fix, and no magic bullet. We know that the food system as a whole needs to change in order to provide communities with adequate access, affordability and food environments that support healthy eating. 

However, there are things we can do now already to incrementally inch the "good nutrition" needle in the right direction: For many being more aware of the functions and power of food, and how it can serve or harm our bodies and our immune system, can lead to making more mindful decisions about the foods we buy, and how we prepare and consume them. 

Here are a few practical tips:

  • Choose healthy options when buying groceries. Do this by planning the family meals and snacks for the week. This will reduce the temptation to buy ultra-processed snacks of meals when things get busy at home or at work.
  • Consume five fruit and vegetable servings per day (but limit the intake of juice, as it’s very sugar and energy dense).
  • Limit eating occasions away from home (eg restaurants), except for school meals.
  • Participate in family meals on most days of the week.
  • Use healthy cooking methods such as steaming, boiling and grilling at home, instead of frying foods in oil. To maintain the maximum nutrients, avoid overcooking vegetables.
  • Consume at least three meals per day rather than all-day unconscious snacking.• Reduce consumption of most energy-dense and ultra-processed foods and beverages, and eliminate the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages.
  • Select appropriate portion sizes when eating at home and away from home.• Eat mindfully, only when hungry and only until satiated (see box)

What is mindful eating?

One very simple and practical way to think about mindful eating, is eating with intention and attention. Eating to feel better when you’re finished than you did when you started, and with the attention necessary to notice food and its effects on your body and mind.

Practice mindful eating by:

  • Eating slowly and without distraction.
  • Sit down for each meal, chew slowly and thoroughly. Put your knife and fork down between bites. Also remove television and other forms of screen media from the dining-room table.
  • Listening to physical hunger cues and eating only until you're full - using a smaller plate can help with this
  • Distinguishing between actual hunger and non-hunger triggers for eating.
  • Feelings of happiness, loneliness, depression and anxiety can trigger emotional eating. Boredom is also a non-hunger trigger for eating.
  • Engaging all your senses by noticing colours, smells, sounds, textures and tastes - savour and enjoy every bite.
  • Appreciating your food.
  • Learning to cope with guilt and anxiety about food.
  • Eating to maintain overall health and well-being.

Retha Harmse, RD(SA) and Liezel Engelbrecht, RD(SA) are both spokespeople for the Association for Dietetics in South Africa (ADSA).

Visit www.nutritionweek.co.za for more information and tips.

Image credit: iStock

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