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Healthy eating is more than an individual choice

Healthy eating is more than an individual choice

By Zukiswa Zimela

During a year-long stint in China as an English teacher, I lost five kilograms despite eating my weight in rice, noodles, and chocolates. On my return to South Africa, I gained all the weight back and then some.

Nothing in my eating patterns had changed much. If anything, I was eating less and engaging in vigorous exercise.

Despite my best intentions to eat “healthily”, I was still consuming far more sugar, fat, and salt than I thought. Of course, I tried counting calories, but few among us can decipher what is written on the back of food labels.

It would be great if we were able to eat from farm to table. However, the lack of time to plant, harvest and prepare our own food, ongoing blackouts, and our reliance on quick and easy meals from fast food restaurants, means most of us are reliant on packaged foods for convenience and necessity.

A survey of packaged food and beverages available in South Africa found that 76% were ultra-processed, 7% were processed and only 17% were minimally processed. Corn in its natural state is minimally processed, canned sweet corn is processed, while corn chips with added salt, artificial flavourings and colourants are ultra-processed. It is the additions of extras such as salts, sugars and fats that make the food dangerous for our health.

It’s easy to lay the blame of bad food choices at the feet of ordinary consumers, after all, we are responsible for what we eat, and we should take personal responsibility for our health. However, many of us are not nutrition literate enough to differentiate a kilojoule from an amino acid.

A South African study on how people react to different labels found that a higher percentage of participants exposed to warning labels correctly identified unhealthy products compared to the daily guideline amounts.

There is sufficient evidence to show that Front of Pack Labels (FOPL) will help ordinary people make better lifestyle choices.

Where packs have “high in” warning labels alerting consumers that products have excess sugar, salt, and saturated fat, consumers are more likely to avoid these and, thus, make better food choices. This, in turn, helps curtail rising levels of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as diabetes, cancer and hypertension.

In South Africa, non-communicable diseases were responsible for 57% of deaths according to a report released in 2020. Between 2006 and 2015, diabetes, strokes and coronary heart disease caused an estimated loss of $1.88 billion to South Africa’s gross domestic product (GDP).

But this is not just about the money. It is about people’s lives. Covid-19 highlighted the danger non-communicable diseases pose as these underlying health conditions put people at added risk during the pandemic.

A 2016 SA Demographic and Health Survey (SADHS) found that one in three men were overweight or obese. The statistics are higher for women where two in three are overweight or obese. One in eight children are regarded as overweight or obese.

The majority of those killed by the virus suffered from co-morbidities such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease. What’s worrying is that we can expect more of these events. Experts are sounding the alarm that global warming will lead to even more pandemics. A nation of healthy people will be more resilient against such devastating events.

Of course, there are those that say there is enough information on food products already. The industry may argue that the current labels highlighting healthy nutrients in food stuffs are enough. However, a recent study by Priceless SA at the University of Witwatersrand School of Public Health found that there is no evidence that shows that allowing food and beverage companies to voluntarily put in place policies to safeguard public health works.

Strong evidence exists that shows that well-designed, evidence-based fiscal and regulatory policies can improve food environments by limiting the availability, affordability, and accessibility of unhealthy foods. In this way, we can reduce consumption of such foods and improve public health.

Such healthy choices rely on knowledge: knowing what is in the food we eat. Government urgently needs to move to get FOPL legislated and work closely with the players in the food and beverage industry to allow consumers to make educated decisions about what they consume.

When we reduce the burden of paying for the high cost of disease on the government, we will be able to spend our much-needed resources on improving the quality of life of all South Africans. And it starts by ensuring we give ourselves the right information to make informed food choices.

* Zukiswa Zimela is Healthy Living Alliance Communications Manager.

Original Article