Diets are changing. 5 ways to take back healthy habits


As a nation, we're experiencing an alarming rise in obesity and diet-related diseases. Something has changed about the way we interact with our food. Here's how to get ourselves (and our kids) back on track.

Life in South Africa has changed dramatically over the last two decades, and so has the way we eat. Economic growth and rapid urbanisation have resulted in an increase in access to fast food and processed food, and consequently our diets have changed.

In addition, our increasingly busy lifestyles often lead us to seek convenience in the form of fast foods, while it leaves too little time to exercise or get outdoors.

Here are five ways to take back healthy behaviours in our modern, urban environments:

1. Avoid ultra-processed foods

"These foods (including junk foods) are high in sugar and fat, and consequently high in kilojoules," says Discovery Vitality dietitian Terry Harris. "They provide energy, which can lead to weight gain if eaten in excess, without offering enough beneficial nutrients.

If you're short on time but love to snack, check out these convenient 'Good food on the go' recipes from the Vitality HealthyFood Studio for some easy, healthy alternatives.

2. Limit liquid sugar

Globally, people are consuming increasing quantities of sugar-sweetened foods and drinks, which are associated with weight gain and chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.

Sugary drinks, in particular, are a major contributor to high sugar intake. These drinks (including 100% fruit juice) are a significant source of added sugar, but they don't make you feel full. This means a sugary drink with your meal could have you consuming many more kilojoules than you realise, because people tend not to eat less to compensate for the extra kilojoules they drink.

3. Get to grips with food labels

A 2015 study by the South African Journal of Science found that some of the largest shifts in food consumption were in sauces, dressings and condiments.

Learn how to interpret food labels and check them whenever you buy these items and other processed foods. Especially in things like sweet chili sauce and chutney, the sugar and salt content is higher than is healthy to add to your meal.

4. Educate young South Africans

A 2016 study of more than 3 000 adolescents in Johannesburg and Soweto found that a large portion of this population consume fast food meals on most days of the week.

Personal habits like regularly eating fast food develop in adolescence so this age group represents a window of opportunity for creating awareness. Advertising and education in schools - and at home - can help young people manage their weight and ultimately lead healthier lifestyles.

5. Be a role model for healthy choices

While our environment affects what kinds of exercise we do and how often, a report published by the US National Institute of Health states that parents are important role models when it comes to physical activity in children and adolescents.

Positive reinforcement, parental participation and time spent outdoors go a long way to getting kids moving and increasing their fitness. So take your kids out to ride their bikes, play ball games in neighbourhood parks and recreational facilities, or turn your closest parkrun into a family fun run. Every bit of physical activity helps and can motivate your family too.

Harris adds, "Good nutrition starts with consistently healthy habits. It sounds basic, but just replacing sugary drinks with water and eating more vegetables can demonstrably improve your health."

So buy fresh, raw ingredients as much as possible and learn to put them together in fun, tasty ways (visit the Vitality HealthyFood Studio to find out how), and watch how the change in diet affects your overall wellbeing!


Teach them young

Here are our dietitian's top tips for how to get kids eating healthily:

  • Offer plain water or milk rather than fruit juice or soft drinks.
  • Gradually reduce the sugar in their cereal and tea by a quarter of a teaspoon until they no longer want it.
  • Encourage your kids to help prepare meals and talk to them about the importance of a healthy diet.
  • Stock up on healthy snacks like baby carrots, nuts and berries.

You can activate the Vitality HealthyFood benefit for up to 25% cash back on a wide variety of healthy items at Pick n Pay or Woolworths.

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