Eat more vegetables and fruits every day. Picture: Unsplash/ Nathan Dumlao
Eat more vegetables and fruits every day. Picture: Unsplash/ Nathan Dumlao

National Nutrition Week: Fruit and veg are good for your health and budget

By Viwe Ndongeni-Ntlebi Time of article published Oct 12, 2021

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During the Covid-19 pandemic, food prices have increased significantly, but you can’t go wrong with fruits and vegetables for your health and your budget.

Shopping lists have changed over the years, and in the last year, with people buying ready-made meals and easy, quick food to prepare. The fruits and vegetable aisles are often overlooked because raw ingredients may require some effort to turn into a meal. But the benefits of fruit and veggies cannot be denied. They are key to a healthy lifestyle and a critical part of health and development.

This year’s National Nutrition Week kicked off on October 9, with the theme ‘Eat more vegetables and fruits every day'. The purpose behind celebrating this week is to spread awareness about good nutrition and health. The president of the Association for Dietetics in South Africa (ADSA), Maria van der Merwe, said this year’s theme could not be more crucial.

“Eating more vegetables and fruits every day, as well as more variety, is simply fundamental to healthy diets. Due to Covid, there’s a lot of focus on supporting immune systems, and eating a variety of veg and fruit are essential to achieve this.  Some South Africans are shifting towards more plant-based diets, which has become a worldwide healthy eating trend.

“But we also need a coordinated effort to help many South African families access an affordable variety of fresh produce. This includes our indigenous vegetables, which are nutrient-rich and can be grown in home and community gardens. Diets rich in vegetables and fruits support the immune system and protect against diseases while enabling our bodies to fight back better from infections and reduce the risks of obesity, heart disease, diabetes and certain cancers.”

Covid-19 has made eating behaviour healthier but also highlighted the importance of obesity prevention.

Our own South African Food-based Dietary Guidelines include: ‘Eat plenty of vegetables and fruit.’ Despite this, research shows that many South Africans eat far fewer vegetables and fruits than we need to maintain our health. Rising obesity and persistent under-nutrition are prevalent in many of our communities.

The Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa’s CEO, Professor Pamela Naidoo, says South Africa has one of the highest rates of overweight and obesity in the world, which are major contributors to cardiovascular disease, a comorbidity associated with poor Covid-19 outcomes.

“What we eat each day really does matter.  By including a minimum of five vegetables and fruits in our diet every day, we are actively protecting our heart health and reducing the risk of high blood pressure.  There are many different ways to include both raw and cooked produce in our meals and snacks, so that no matter your food preferences and food culture, you can always find ways to rather choose a fruit or raw vegetable when you need a snack; include more salads at meal-times and in lunch boxes; and, add more kinds of vegetables to your sandwiches, soups, stews, curries, roasts and even braais,” said Naidoo.

Healthy eating is especially important for keeping your immune system in top condition. For little ones, who are growing and changing rapidly. Nutrition needs grow rapidly as well; if these needs are not met, their growth and development can be critically delayed or affected.

The Department of Basic Education’s Deputy Director-General, Dr Granville Whittle, said: “Awareness of nutrition and health is already embedded in the South African curriculum, yet too often, children can’t put what they learn into practice in their school community or in their homes due to a lack of daily access to vegetables and fruits.

School, community, and home food gardens are a strategic way to boost access to fresh produce and make it possible for children to pick fruit from trees or pull carrots from the garden when they need a snack. From lunch boxes and the school nutrition programme to tuck shops, school environments need support so that they can become nutrient-rich places where healthy eating is encouraged, affordable and possible.”

Carol Browne of the Nutrition Society of South Africa recommends following four principles when it comes to meeting the recommended minimum of five portions of vegetables and fruit each day:

1.    Always include vegetables in meals – “Adding vegetables and herbs to your meals makes them more delicious as well as more nutritious.  When you are planning and preparing meals, make it a priority to see how many different vegetables you can add.   Whether you are cooking a stir-fry, a pasta, a sauce or an egg dish, vegetables will only enhance it in every way.”

2.    Eat raw vegetables and fresh fruit – “Too often, when we think of snacks, we reach for chips or sweets that have little to no nutritional value.  Getting into the routine of snacking on fruits and veg is a healthy eating habit we can model for our children.”

3.    Eat fresh vegetables and fruit that are in season – “Seasonal produce is more affordable, and by focusing on eating winter veg and fruits in winter and summer veg and fruits in summer, you can access more fruit and veg every day. Growing your own puts you in touch with seasonal produce, and many vegetables, fruits, leafy vegetables and herbs can be grown at home, even in containers.”

4.    Eat a variety of vegetables and fruits – “Different veg and fruit offer different health-boosting micronutrients, and that’s why eating a variety helps you get good overall nutrition.  A helpful goal is to make choices based on a variety of colours.  For example, white onion, orange butternut, leafy greens and purple beetroot give you much more nutrition from a meal than eating one large portion of just one type of vegetable.  Aim to have a health-boosting rainbow on your plate.”

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