Are South Africans gluttons?

Results of two studies just published by the South African Medical Research Council (MRC) indicate that South Africans are digging their graves with their teeth.

These studies, which were conducted by the MRC's Chronic Diseases of Lifestyle and the Burden of Disease Research units, showed that South Africans living in urban areas have become gluttons.

Staggering statistics
The two MRC reports found that the following worrisome changes have occurred in South African health statistics:

  • The average life expectancy has decreased from 60 to 50 years.
  • The average total kilojoule (energy) intake of South Africans has increased by 12%.
  • Nearly 50% of all South Africans are overweight (BMI exceeding 25), or obese (BMI exceeding 30).
  • 22% of our children in the age groups from 1 to 9 years are either overweight or obese.
  • Life-style cancers have increased.
  • Six million South Africans suffer from high blood pressure.
  • Five million have high cholesterol levels and are at risk of heart disease.
  • Nearly 1,5 million suffer from diabetes.
  • Seven million South Africans are smokers.
  • On average, South Africans eat only half the World Health Organisation's recommended daily allowance of 400g of fresh fruit and vegetables.

These staggering statistics should ring alarm bells in our population, but alas, most South Africans are either unaware of the dangers associated with poor dietary habits, or are not interested in changing their food intake.

What you can do
As a first step, South Africans should take note of the results of these studies and if any of the above-mentioned negative health attributes (overweight, obesity, inactivity, smoking, diseases of lifestyle) apply to you or your family, you must start doing something positive about these factors a.s.a.p.

One of the most sensible sets of health guidelines ever published in our country is the so-called Food-Based Dietary Guidelines (FBDG). I was privileged to work on the FBDG Working Group and feel that readers can apply these guidelines to combat negative eating habits and lifestyles.

The South African Food-Based Dietary Guidelines
The SA FBDG are as follows:

  • Enjoy a variety of foods
  • Be active
  • Make starchy foods the basis of most meals
  • Eat plenty of vegetables and fruit every day
  • Eat dry beans, peas, lentils and soya regularly
  • Meat, fish, chicken, milk and eggs can be eaten every day
  • Eat fats sparingly
  • Use salt sparingly
  • Drink lots of clean, safe water
  • If you drink alcohol, drink sensibly
  • Use food and drinks containing sugar sparingly and not between meals

These eleven guidelines contain the principles of healthy eating and living in a nutshell. If you apply these rules to your life and the diet you eat, you shouldn't develop obesity, deficiencies, or diseases of lifestyle.

The tragedy of transition
In South Africa there are people, many people, who live below the bread line and suffer from malnutrition and even direct starvation. On the other hand, the reports published by the MRC show that large parts of the population eat too much of the wrong foods.

This phenomenon is often encountered when populations are in transition. When rural people who may have been eating a plain, but healthy diet and were physically very active, move to towns and cities, their diets and lifestyles change drastically.

There is much more convenience, ready-to-eat food available in the urban setting and most of these foods and beverages are high in fat, processed carbohydrates, and energy.

The tragedy of populations in transition is that they lose their healthy lifestyles when they migrate to towns and cities. A speaker at a conference I attended years ago once said that he would like to prevent African populations from falling into the trap of western lifestyles when they become urbanised.

In an ideal world, rural populations would move to towns and cities and maintain their healthy eating habits and high levels of physical activity. But we all know that this is not what happens in real life.

The only solution lies in education. People with high levels of education are generally aware of the importance of a sensible, balanced diet and physical activity to stay healthy.

Let's get the message across to everyone in this country that we need to eat less and do more, otherwise we and our children will remain gluttons eating our way into an early grave. – (Dr Ingrid van Heerden, DietDoc)

(MRC (2006) Dietary Changes & the Health Transition in SA; Vorster HH et al (2001) Development of FBDG for SA - the Process, SAJCN:14(3):S3-S6).

Read more:
Fat, fatter, South African?
Obesity: a global concern

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