Health

Nutrition and health

A grim picture has emerged of the eating patterns of South African children with more than 72 percent of those who took part in a survey surviving on a daily diet of only sugar and maize. Anso Thom reports.

The National Food Consumption Survey, quoted in the recently released SAHR, found that most children between one and nine had diets that were deficient in energy and poor in nutrient density. The survey, involving more than 2 800 children, also found that bread consumption was relatively low during the first three years of life, with only about 33 percent of children consuming brown bread. The consumption of bread increased to 44percent in seven to nine year olds.

Additionally the survey found that about one in five children in South Africa are stunted (21,6 percent) and one in ten (10,3 percent) are underweight for age. The prevalence of stunting was highest in the one to three year old group (25,5 percent) and lowest in the seven to nine year olds (13 percent).

The SAHR found that while government has a comprehensive policy on nutrition, implementation is a key stumbling block.

Authors of the SAHR chapter on nutrition, Nelia Steyn of the Medical Research Council and Demetre Labadarios of the University of Stellenbosch, pointed out that the Nutrition Directorate should be afforded the necessary resources to address this lack of capacity.

Over the past few weeks, Health minister, Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, has indicated that she would be strengthening the nutrition arm of her department in the hope of turning the tide on the fatal HIV/AIDS epidemic in the country.

On the flipside, the SAHR found that overnutrition (obesity) in 6 percent of the children, a prevalence that increased to 12 percent of children of well educated mothers living in urban areas.

The South African Demographic and Health Survey undertaken in 1998 also reported than 26,1percent of adult women and 19,8 percent of men were overweight. Furthermore 9,3 percent of men and 30,1percent of women were obese. Obesity is known to be a major risk factor for hypertension and diabetes.

Labadarios and Steyn expressed disappointment that many of the problems highlighted in the school feeding survey undertaken in 1996, were still being experienced in 2001.

Ideally, a school feeding programme should lead to more alert children who benefit intellectually and emotionally. The authors recommended that policy implementation should focus on the lowest level of primary and secondary health care. It highlighted lack of capacity at these levels as the main impediment to the successful implementation of the nutrition programmes.

About the author

Anso Thom