Worse than HIV/Aids?

Non-communicable diseases like cancer, heart disease and diabetes, although easily preventable, remain largely ignored and will soon rival AIDS, TB and malaria in filling up burial sites throughout the African continent.

The issue of these lifestyle diseases was in sharp focus at the recent World Economic Forum on Africa held in Cape Town, and again today in Johannesburg, where experts in the fields of dietetics, nutrition and health focused on the role of dietary fat in preventing major nutrition-related chronic diseases.

The meeting today was held under the auspices of the International Union of Nutrition Sciences (IUNS) and led by Dr Ali Dhansay, Chair of IUNS SA, alongside a scientific Steering Committee comprising Professor Marius Smuts of the Centre of Excellence in Nutrition (CEN) at North West University; Rene Smalberger, President of the Association for Dietetics in South Africa and Dr Petro Wolmarans, Senior Specialist Scientist in the Nutritional Intervention Research Unit of the Medical Research Council.

Professor Dhansay said South Africans – like their global counterparts – were still confused about dietary fat and this was reflected in their poor food choices. He said this had contributed to a growing trend of chronic and degenerative diseases like heart disease, cancer and diabetes.

"Dietary surveys indicate that many populations around the world (both in developed and developing countries) consume excess saturated and trans fats and a low proportion of essential polyunsaturated fats. This has serious consequences for the health and well being of children and adults," he said.

"People generally are not aware of the importance of the fat quality of the diet and the sources of different fats. The general focus is on quantity of fat to control weight and decrease risk of cardiovascular disease, but it should also be on fat quality," said Professor Dhansay.

The research shows that globally many consumers view fat as bad, fattening, lacking in nutrition and a key cause of cholesterol problems and heart disease. This led to many eliminating fat all together.

However Smalberger said this was not advisable.

"The right fats are an essential part of the diet. They are vital for vitamin absorption, energy and brain development and functioning. Polyunsaturated fats can in fact lower the risk of heart disease," she said.

A joint World Health Organisation / Food and Agriculture Organisation report on diet, nutrition and the prevention of chronic disease says the scientific complexities of these issues should not obscure the simple messages required to orient and guide consumers.

The IUNS has thus committed itself to interventions aimed at advising people of practical ways to improve their health. These include concrete examples of which foods to eat, clear and understandable food labeling, and collaboration between the food and food service industry and health and nutrition experts, as well as governments and NGOs.

Health care professionals are also urged to take responsibility for providing patients with the right information and support on current dietary recommendations, or to seek training or refer patients to nutrition specialists.

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