Nutrition expert warns South African children at risk with malnutrition and obesity a double-edged sword

Having access to food that’s good for you and doesn’t break the bank is crucial for staying healthy. Picture: Sadman Chowdhury /Pexels

Having access to food that’s good for you and doesn’t break the bank is crucial for staying healthy. Picture: Sadman Chowdhury /Pexels

Published Apr 10, 2024


South Africa is facing a serious challenge with food insecurity, leaving many families struggling to put healthy meals on their tables.

A startling 27% of kids under five years old are too short for their age, a condition known as stunting, showing how deep the issue runs. On top of this, illnesses often linked to what we eat, like diabetes and heart disease, are on the rise.

Having access to food that’s good for you and doesn’t break the bank is crucial for staying healthy. If people can't get hold of such food, they’re more likely to end up with a diet that does more harm than good, paving the way for diseases that could've been avoided.

In a conversation with Independent Media Lifestyle, Leanne Kiezer from Danone Southern Africa, shed some light on the situation. She pointed out that South Africa is caught between two major health challenges.

“We're facing a double-edged sword,” she said.

“On one side, there's not enough nutrition leading to problems like stunted growth and lack of important vitamins and minerals.

“On the other, there’s too much of the wrong kind of food causing people to become overweight or obese, which then leads to serious health issues like heart problems, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes."

Many kids are not getting enough important nutrients like iron, zinc, and vitamin. Picture: Ketut Subiyanto/Pexels

“Many kids are not getting enough important nutrients like iron, zinc and vitamin A. Iron is especially crucial because it helps with brain development, while zinc and vitamin A are important for keeping the immune system strong,” said Keizer.

For adults, the situation isn't much better. Keizer highlighted a worrying trend: two-thirds of South African women are either overweight or obese.

This issue is closely linked to a rise in chronic health problems such as high blood pressure, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes.

In the past 30 years, South Africa has seen a dramatic shift in eating habits, a phenomenon known as “The Nutrition Transition”, which is contributing to an increase in chronic diseases.

“Over the last 30 years, there has been a stark change in the way South Africans eat, leading to more people becoming overweight and obese, along with a rise in related chronic diseases,” Keizer shared.

They note that South Africans used to eat more fruits and vegetables and had a diet richer in fibre. These dietary changes are a significant concern for the nation's health.

The situation is worsened by the fact that many South Africans live in poverty and cannot afford a healthy diet.

“So many South Africans are living below the breadline, unable to afford the food choices necessary for good health. Alarmingly, only about 1/4 of South African children have access to a diversified, nutritious diet that meets their dietary needs,” said Keizer.

“To further highlight the cost of living crisis in South Africa, according to the Household Affordability Index the average cost of a household food basket was R5 324.86.

“Month-on-month, the food basket increased by R86.66 (1.7%), from R5 238.20 in December 2023 to R5 324.86 in January 2024. The reality is, for many South African families, this remains unaffordable.”

“Women are at the greatest risk of suffering from nutrition inadequacies, particularly when it comes to women of childbearing age between the ages of 15 – 40.

“Women in this group must have their nutrition status adequate and intact so that they'll be able to nourish a growing child during pregnancy. And they also need to be in a position once the child is born, to be able to nourish their child through balanced meals that she provides to her family.

“Generally, mothers are seen as the main influence on a family’s diet and overall health, regardless of whether or not they are the primary income earners. They play a significant role in deciding what food is purchased and consumed by the family,” explained the nutrition expert.

“From farmers to retailers, several key players determine the nutritional value of the food we eat and its cost, ultimately influencing whether families can afford to make healthy food choices,” she told Lifestyle.

To combat the challenge of making healthy food choices, Keizer points to the importance of self-education.

“With plenty of information readily available, individuals can learn more about healthy eating and make informed decisions that positively affect their health. By becoming more informed and aware, people can choose healthier foods, which is a crucial step towards improving their health.”

“Unfortunately, South Africans are choosing foods with the wrong values in mind. They're looking for immediate hunger satisfaction and not necessarily considering the nutrition credentials of the food that they choose.”

“It all comes down to making conscious decisions that consider the nutrient density of a food choice when weighing up its value.

“With this mindset, eating healthily is accessible to everyone just by making intentional choices to swap in nutrient-dense foods, more often.”