Your food choices may say more about you than previously thought, a study shows. Picture: Pexels
We’re often told by nutritionists and weight-watchers, “You are what you eat”, but are we really?

Preliminary findings from a study Professor Yanga Zembe, a socio-anthrolopologist, is working on about the “tensions and norms of food choices in South Africa”, suggests that there could indeed be something to this saying.

The Food Choices and Practices study, involving participants from four cities - Cape Town, Joburg, Port Elizabeth and Pietermaritzburg - of people of all income levels, is finding that, for South Africans, eating is more than just about getting sustenance.

“Food is a way of meeting all our needs. Yes, it fulfils our physiological need of hunger, but, also through food, we express and experience love and belonging,” Zembe said during the country’s first Yoghurt Summit held in Joburg recently. Zembe has held 14 focus groups and has heard anecdotes from people saying that food made them “feel good about ourselves”.

She said: “Food can also make you feel like ‘you have arrived’ socially and materially because you are accessing foods you previously couldn’t.”.

The 35-year-old associate professor at the institute of social development at the University of Western Cape was speaking to dietitians and health experts who were gathered to also discuss the function of gut health in overall health.

Zembe prefaced her talk by explaining the socio-political history of the country and how it influenced food choices as well.

As the country moved from apartheid into democracy, many previously isolated populations, such as black people in townships, gained access to a wider variety of foods.

“Post-1994, SA opened up We went from where, if you were black, you relied on spaza shops, to being able to access shopping malls. This influenced food exposure,” she said.

This has translated into people associating food with a sense of “arrival” or success.

“Mothers also go out of their way to pack lunch boxes that indicate their ability to provide ‘good, expensive food’ while visiting public spaces,” she said.

Zembe said, particularly for dietitians, it was “very important” to understand the meanings people attached to food.

The study was also unveiling that while African, Indian and Afrikaner population groups were still connected to foods they grew up eating, they also wanted to enjoy new trendy foods.

She told the dieticians: “The research is not conclusive yet, but you are dealing with an information-overloaded population, most of who don’t go to dietitians for information, but to Google. South Africans are health-aware. We can’t condemn people to never enjoy food, but should rather use strategies that help people adapt and improve”.