OPINION | How to eat healthy on a low budget

  • Poor nutrition is leading to increasing levels of poor health in South Africa 
  • The highest burden of disease is experienced by women and children in the poorest households
  • South Africans need to eat less meat and more vegetables and fruits to improve the overall quality of their diet

Despite the high levels of hunger and malnutrition in South Africa, being overweight, and obesity among children and adults is increasing.

Several indicators point to a deteriorating situation with increased levels of stunting, chronic, long-term undernutrition and rapidly increasing overweight and obesity among children under the age of five years. The nutrition profile of South Africa is reflective of socio-economic inequity and the deepening levels of poverty and food insecurity. 

Best nutritional value

The highest burden of disease is disproportionately experienced by women and children in the poorest households. Child nutritional outcomes cannot be separated from maternal health and nutrition status.

Poor nutrition in mothers casts a long shadow onto the health and wellbeing of their children, and malnutrition in childhood, especially during the first 1 000 days – from conception to two years of age – has far-reaching consequences. This carries on into adulthood, preventing individuals from reaching their full physiological, neurological and social potential. 

In this regard, it is imperative that households get the best nutritional value for the money they spend, especially in the light of food price increases on the back of the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent global economic downturn.  As consumers tighten their belts to stretch the food budget, it is a logical response to buy less, buy lesser-known brands and to substitute high quality and more expensive food items for lower grades especially in the case of red meat, fish and chicken.

Eating less meat may, however, not be a bad thing as less meat also means less fat. It may just be what is needed to encourage households to move closer to a plant-based diet by including more legumes like dried and tinned beans, lentils and soya-based products.

Immediate and long-term benefits

South Africans also need to eat more vegetables and fruits to improve the overall quality of their diet and meet the World Health Organization's recommendation of at least 400g/day of vegetables and fruit (excluding starchy vegetables like potatoes and other tubers). This roughly translates to five portions of vegetables and fruits per day.

Healthy eating starts with a wider variety and more fresh fruits and vegetables. This can be achieved by starting one's own backyard garden. Increasing the number of meatless meals per week is also a good start. Good food budgeting starts with meal planning and costing to keep food spend low and to make use of bulk or combo specials. This will reduce the temptation of buying luxury items like ready-made foods, snacks and sugar-sweetened beverages and fizzy drinks.

Not buying these foods would save not only money but also reduce the intake of fat, sugar, and salt – linked to a higher risk of non-communicable diseases like overweight, diabetes and hypertension. These conditions lead to additional health costs, reduce your quality of life and shorten life expectancy. 

Healthy eating is an investment that has immediate and long-term benefits for your health, your budget and your quality of life now and in the future. Good nutrition starts with a healthy plant-based diet, wide in variety and low in fat, sugar and salt.

Image credit: Getty Images

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