04 June 2012

SA ignorant about poor diet and disease

An in-depth study has revealed the alarming misconceptions and unhealthy eating habits of many South Africans at a time when chronic conditions are reaching epidemic proportions.


An in-depth study undertaken by the Chronic Diseases Initiative in Africa (CDIA) and the Chronic Diseases of Lifestyle Unit of the Medical Research Council (MRC) in partnership with the Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa (HSF) and Pharma Dynamics has revealed the alarming misconceptions and unhealthy eating habits of many South Africans at a time when chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease (CVD), cancer and diabetes - which are all linked to poor diet and lifestyle - are reaching epidemic proportions in the country.

Research with focus groups from four different provinces has revealed that few households alter their diet after a family member is diagnosed with a chronic disease. Respondents often only changed the diet of the affected relative, with the rest of the family continuing to eat and cook as usual. One respondent summed up the general feeling by telling researchers: “We don’t see the point of it [changing diet], really. We think that we are not going to be diabetic [like him]. So we cook his healthy food and we enjoy the fun [food].”

Anniza de Villiers, senior scientist at the MRC, who led the research says, “Although many are aware of the role a healthy diet plays in the management of chronic diseases because healthcare practitioners give them this information at the time of diagnosis, fewer than 5% of respondents knew about the link between diet and preventing chronic disease.”

De Villiers says most respondents reported receiving nutritional information from their healthcare practitioner, but that this was often merely a general notion “around the need to eat healthily”.

“A few respondents recalled being told to eat less salt and fat and to drink more water. Some came away with the understanding that they were now prohibited from eating a long list of foods, which they found demotivating, unrealistic and unsympathetic.

Olive oil, brown sugar and spices

“There are also many misconceptions around what constitutes a ‘healthy diet’. While healthier cooking options like steaming or grilling food were mentioned, the misconception that all foods should be boiled was a trend that was picked up in many of the focus groups. Olive oil was mentioned as the only healthy oil when in fact sunflower and canola oils are just as healthy and more budget-friendly.

"Other misconceptions seem to be that brown sugar is healthier than white, when in reality there is hardly any difference between the two. Respondents also mistakenly believe that spices such as cinnamon, mustard, black pepper and cloves should be avoided, whereas it’s really some of the pre-mixed spices one should stay away from, because of the added salt and preservatives. A healthy diet was generally seen as bland, tasteless, not filling and expensive.”

More than half of the respondents indicated that their children influenced what they cooked and pointed out that their children’s resistance to a healthier diet was a factor in not changing the family’s eating habits.

'Parents should lead by example'

“This is despite the fact that most respondents agreed that it is a parent’s duty to lead by example and teach children healthy habits. Starting with good eating habits from a young age can prevent the onset of chronic diseases,” says de Villiers.

Currently about 195 South Africans die every day from CVD and according to forecasts by researchers at the United Nations, deaths among South Africans aged between 35 to 64 from cardiovascular disease, will increase by a staggering 40% by 2030. The condition is linked to a diet high in animal protein, saturated fat, salt and sugar and low in fruit, vegetables, fibre and unrefined carbohydrates.

The focus groups formed part of a larger research project called "Putting Prevention into Practice" which is being undertaken by the CDIA and will be used to inform the content of a new, healthier-eating recipe book, called Cooking from the heart, being compiled by well-known food consultant, Heleen Meyer.

The book aims to help South Africans cut the salt, fat, sugar and kilojoules from some of their favourite recipes. The Cooking from the heart initiative is being funded by Pharma Dynamics, the country’s leading provider of generic cardiovascular medication, and the recipe book will be launched and made available free of charge to the public during September, recognised as National Heart Awareness Month.

- Pharma Dynamics press release

- (Health24, June 2012)

Read more:

Nutrition basics in a nutshell
Top 10 foods with hidden salt


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