The Department of Health has designated February as Healthy Lifestyles Awareness Month as an additional effort to boost the wellbeing of the nation.
The campaign promotes good nutrition, regular physical activity, tobacco control, interventions against alcohol and substance abuse and safe sexual behaviour.
With high rates of obesity and the so-called ‘lifestyle’ diseases, such as diabetes, it’s quite clear that South Africans need to develop more awareness about making healthy eating choices.
We asked Registered Dietitians from the Association for Dietetics in South Africa (ADSA) what South Africans should know about nutrition:
Head for the kitchen and start cooking
Registered dietician Cath Day said: “My top tip to my clients is to start cooking your own healthy meals from scratch as often as possible, using the freshest and healthiest ingredients. It’s the best way to control not only everything that goes into your meal, but also portion sizes. If you cook often at home, you have full awareness of making healthy eating choices most of the time."
Day added that cooking with fresh, healthy ingredients, making delicious meals and snacks can easily be fun rather than a chore.
"You can cultivate a family culture of great enjoyment at healthy eating by involving your partner, your kids, the whole family, and even, friends in preparing and sharing healthy food.”
Limit the sugar
Registered dietitian, Catherine Pereira said ADSA supports the recommendations by the World Health Organisation (WHO) that added sugar intake should be limited to no more than 5 % of total energy intake.
"The South African Food Based Dietary Guidelines states that ‘sugar, and foods and drinks high in sugar should be consumed sparingly’. These foods include all types of confectionery (biscuits, cakes, etc.) as well as sugar-sweetened drinks. The key to getting this right is to become far more aware of ‘hidden’ sugars. We all know that when choose to eat a packet of sweets, we’re eating too much sugar; but we’re perhaps less aware that when we order an iced tea or a glass of wine at a restaurant, these also spike our daily sugar intake beyond sensible levels."
When it comes to avoiding empty calories, what we drink counts every bit as much as what we eat; and we need a far higher level of awareness of our actual daily sugar intake in order to make sure we are keeping to the guidelines.
Get over obsessing over restrictive or fad diets
Kezia Kent, registered dietitian said following your friends’ latest diet or the newest fad promoted on social media is not necessarily going to work for you as it may be working for others.
"Eating healthily should be tailored specifically for you and it should happen every day, not just over a time when you are trying to lose weight. There is always going to be a ‘latest’ diet; and chopping and changing according to fads can prevent you from developing sensible and sustainable healthy eating habits that truly suit your lifestyle and your body. Especially, avoid diets that promise you’ll lose weight quickly. Slow, steady weight loss lasts longer than quick, dramatic weight loss. If you lose weight quickly, you may lose muscle and water which increases your chances of regaining the weight. If you need to change to healthier eating or need to lose weight, get professional advice to develop a sustainable plan for you.”
Be careful about making carbs an enemy
Another registered dietitian, Monique dos Santos warned that there’s an immense amount of attention on low carb-high fat diets right now.
"We’ve got to keep the perspective that there are good reasons to include carbohydrates in our diets. Obviously, you want to limit sugar and refined starches, but there are carbohydrates in many, many foods that are good for us. Our bodies rely on a combination of carbohydrates and fat for energy to fuel daily activities."
She added that carbohydrates are the brain’s number one energy source so cutting out carbs will zap your energy levels and leave you feeling fatigued. When carbs are limited excessively, you get really, really cranky.
"We also need carbohydrates to build muscle (in combination with sufficient protein in the diet and training). Fibre-rich carbohydrates such as fruits, some vegetables, legumes and wholegrain starches like oats, wild rice, and whole-wheat pasta are important for gut health. Let’s not forget that many carbs are also rich in other nutrients. If you restrict fruits, vegetables, and wholegrains then you are also limiting your intake of nutrients like vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. B-vitamins, vitamin C, beta-carotene, magnesium and other essential micro-nutrients are all found in carbohydrate-rich foods.”