Updated 08 April 2013

Great new SA Food Guide

Do you remember the Food Pyramid? The SA Food Guide is the latest visual guide to what healthy, balanced eating should look like. DietDoc explains more.

When I set out to write this article on our new Food Guide, it struck me that many people in South Africa may not know what nutritionists and dieticians mean when we talk about a "Food Guide". So I thought it would be a good idea to take another look at this nutrition education tool.

What is a Food Guide?

For the past decade the South African nutrition and dietetic fraternity, together with the Department of Health, propagated the messages of the original set of so-called Food-Based Dietary Guidelines. Those of you who read my DietDoc articles will know that I have repeatedly referred to these original guidelines, particularly the first and most important guideline which states: "Eat a variety of foods".

The blueprint for the guidelines was devised by the Word Health Organisation (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in response to the Word Declaration and Plan of Action for Nutrition which were adopted at the International Conference on Nutrition in 1992. So these ideas of guidelines which are tailored to express nutrition messages in terms of the foods people eat in a specific country and to address the disease patterns experienced by that specific population have been around for a long time.

Two of the suggestions contained in the manual published by the WHO on how to compile guidelines, was that the guidelines should be updated regularly to keep track of changes in dietary habits, food availability, disease patterns, economic variations, etc, and that the ideas expressed in the guidelines should also if possible be "made visible" by means of a food guide.

A food guide can, therefore, be defined as "a visual reminder, to support messages from the Guidelines for Healthy Eating" (DoH, 2012).


South Africa has had many different food Guides such as a Food Pyramid, a Square, and various Food Plates featuring a wide number of food groups. During the preparatory phase of this project to devise a food guide for South Africa, I was tasked to write a literature review on the food guides that are used throughout the world, including South Africa. 

At the time, I found that visual representations of nutrition messages in South Africa were being presented in so many different ways using 3 food groups, 4 food groups, 5 and even 6 food groups, and so many important foods that we use every day were being left out or ignored, that it became evident that we needed one uniform food guide which would transmit a unified nutrition message to all South Africans (Van Heerden, 2008).

I am, therefore, thankful that the Department of Health and a team of dedicated experts in the fields of nutrition and dietetics have produced our own food guide which will hopefully bring clarity to the field of public nutrition education in this country.
What messages does the SA Food Guide illustrate?

New SA Food Guide

Launched during National Nutrition Week 2012, the new SA Food Guide consists of 7 circles of different sizes filled with examples of the food/beverage groups that we eat/drink in South Africa. The different sizes of the circles indicate how important each one of the food groups is and give a rough idea of what percentage that food group should occupy in our diets.

The food groups in the SA Food Guide are listed in the table below in descending order of size and thus of importance, together with typical examples of the beverages/foods, and the Guideline for Healthy Eating each food group illustrates:

Food Groups in Descending Order of Importance

Foods illustrated in the circle

Guideline for Healthy Eating that the picture illustrates


A jug of clean water and beverages made with water such as tea or coffee

Drink lots of clean, safe water and make it your beverage of choice

Starchy foods

Maize meal, bread, rice, pasta (macaroni, spaghetti), potatoes, breakfast cereals

Make starchy foods part of most meals

Vegetables and Fruit

Cabbage, spinach, butternut, carrots, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, oranges, bananas, strawberries

Eat plenty of vegetables and fruit every day


Sugar beans, split peas, lentils, soya mince, canned beans

Eat dry beans, split peas, lentils and soya regularly

Milk and Dairy Products

Milk , maas

Have milk, maas or yoghurt every day

Meat, fish, and eggs

Chicken, fresh and canned fish, meat and eggs

Chicken, fish, lean meat or eggs could be eaten daily

Fats and oils

A tub of soft margarine, a bottle of plant oil and a tub of peanut butter

Use moderate amount of the right types of fats and vegetable oils sparingly

If you visit the food guide units section on the  Nutrition Week website, you will find what measures of each food are regarded as a food guide unit (e.g. 1 slice of bread, ½ cup of cooked rice, ½ cup of cooked fresh or frozen vegetables).

Additional information

The Nutrition Week website also contains backup information about each food group and why the food groups have been arranged in the above sequence of importance.
Although many members of the public will at first glance be up in arms about the inclusion or exclusion of certain foods, and the emphasis that has been placed on one group and not on another, you may find that if you think carefully in terms of the entire South African population, the economic constraints our people have to face every day, and the pattern of diseases of lifestyle (heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity, etc) that characterise South Africans in the nutrition transition, as well as the need to boost immunity to combat HIV and TB, and to prevent malnutrition, then you will understand why the new South African Food Guide looks the way it does!

(DoH (2012). The SA Guidelines for Healthy Eating. Ed; C Brown. In Press; Nutrition Week (2012). National Nutrition Week 2012. Food Groups. ; Van Heerden I V (2008). Literature Review. The development and use of food guides: Does South Africa need a food guide? Prepared for the Consumer Goods Council of SA, October 2008.)

Dr Ingrid van Heerden is a registered dietician and holds a doctoral degree in Nutrition and Biochemistry. She believes that "we are what we eat" and offers free nutrition and weight loss advice via her DietDoc service on Read more of her articles.


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