There's been a worldwide acknowledgementt of the importance of nutrition in leading a healthy lifestyle, its role in weight management and combating lifestyle diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease and hypertension.
This has led to a myriad of food products flooding the market making certain health and nutritional claims.
Dr Craig Nossel, Head of Discovery Vitality, says that consumers today are faced with a confusing set of choices and conflicting messages on what really makes up a healthy food.
“We wanted to find a way to help our members make healthy food choices, and at the same time reward them for doing so.
"The first step was to undertake scientific research around similar projects undertaken elsewhere where healthy dietary guidelines are being advocated locally and internationally, and to find globally accepted criteria to use as a guideline for our initiative.
"The second step was to find a way to help people make healthier food choices and to remove any barriers to following a nutritious diet. The Vitality HealthyFood Benefit meets both needs.” says Dr Nossel.
To ensure credibility and independence, the Vitality Nutritional Panel, comprising experts in the field of health and nutrition, defined criteria for a healthy food list.
What is a healthy food?
The nutrition panel used both local and international dietary guidelines to determine the set of criteria used to identify a Vitality HealthyFood. The final set of criteria includes South African Food-based Dietary Guidelines, as well as dietary guidelines from reputable international organisations such as the World Health Organization and the American Heart Association.
Definition of a Vitality HealthyFood
Food that is nutrient-rich, low in saturated fat, added sugars, sodium and cholesterol, and contains no trans-fatty acid, can be considered a healthy food. These foods are characteristically good sources of vitamins, minerals and sometimes fibre, and usually have a low kilojoule-density. All these qualities promote good health.
Why the focus on healthy foods?
“In 2008, Discovery Vitality commissioned research about the role of healthy behaviours in preventing non-communicable diseases and lowering the cost of healthcare. The Vitality Insured Persons study proved that members who regularly engaged in Vitality’s wellness initiatives had fewer hospital admissions, shorter hospital stays and lower overall hospital-related costs,” says Dr Nossel.
The study found that this group of members’ healthcare costs were on average 7.2% lower for cardiovascular disease, 15.1% lower for cancers and 21.4% lower for endocrine and metabolic diseases.
The findings of this study become even more relevant when looking at the number of deaths world-wide that are related to chronic lifestyle diseases. The World Health Organization estimates that 60% of the 56.5 million deaths worldwide were attributed to chronic disease such as coronary heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, strokes and certain cancers.
In South Africa, 37% of deaths are a result of lifestyle factors. At 19%, coronary heart disease and diabetes are the leading cause of death in this group.
“We have always known that nutrition plays an important role in preventing chronic diseases of lifestyle, however, unlike a strong focus on other lifestyle behaviours like exercise, the Vitality programme did not have sufficient incentives for people to eat a healthy balanced diet,” says Dr Nossel.
Discovery’s HealthyFood Initiative
In line with Discovery Vitality’s aim of helping people to lead healthier lives, Vitality members are now able to receive up to 25% cash back on over 6 000 HealthyFood products. This benefit is offered in partnership with Pick n Pay.
Using the HealthyFood criteria, nutrition and dietician experts refined the range of 61 000 food items on the Pick n Pay foodstuffs inventory to a 6 000 strong list to make healthy eating easier and more accessible.
The HealthyFood choices include vegetables, fruits, carbohydrate-rich foods, dairy and dairy alternatives, protein-rich foods, lentils and legumes and good fats such as oils, spreads, nuts and seeds from monounsaturated fatty acid sources. These foods have been shown to improve health and help prevent chronic diseases of lifestyle, such as diabetes, hypertension and heart disease, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
“The guidelines for good health are relatively simple,” says Prof Tim Noakes, Discovery Health Professor of Exercise Science and Sports Medicine at UCT. “They include taking in just enough energy to prevent excessive weight gain; reducing the intake of animal fats, sugar, refined carbohydrates and salt; increasing the intake of fruit and vegetables to five servings a day; moderating alcohol intake; exercising two or more hours a week; and not smoking or using recreational drugs.”
(Press release from Discovery Vitality, March 2009)