All cancers, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, high blood pressure, diabetes, chronic respiratory diseases and obesity are all noncommunicable diseases (NCDs). These account for over half (51%) of all death in South Africa, according to Professor Rina Swart, from the University of the Western Cape (UWC).

Lower income populations struggle to access nutritional and healthy foods as they are more expensive than unhealthy products, explained Swart. This makes them more vulnerable to NCDs.

The dietician and nutritionist was speaking at a webinar in a series titled ‘Human Rights and Non-Communicable Diseases in South Africa.’ The university’s Socio-Economic Rights Project in the Dullah Omar Institute is hosting the series on NCDs.

“The dietary diversity of South Africans is extremely limited; only one in ten people consume eight or more of the different fruit groups and those people are primarily in [the] high income [category],” said Swart.

“The expenditure of these items or food categories also confirm our food consumption patterns and when I compare the expenditure you will see that something like fruit which is not significant amount money you spend in high income at least it cost 19 times more than what it is in the lowest income,” Swart said.

“The expenditure on meat is six times higher than those in low income. And also in terms of vegetables they spend significantly more than those in high income,” she said.

Integrating nutrition into local policies

In urban areas and elsewhere, coherent policies are needed to tackle access to proper nutrition, said Dr Jane Battersby from the African Centre for Cities.

“Nutritional scale policies need to be integrated with local scale policies and programmes in which it affects. There is no point in having soda tax if you don’t have an understanding why soda companies are able to penetrate those markets, why people rather buy coke than drink water. We need to work with existing mandate with local government to increase food sensitivity,” she said.

“I think COVID-19 has revealed just how little we understand our food system and how vulnerable local systems are  and also how costly NCDs are to society. Thinking on food policies can be central as we seek to rebuild our economy and improve public health,” she said.

Obesogenic environments

These policies will help to shape healthy environments, and help reset food system so that poor communities have access to affordable healthy food. Food products and the environments their consumed in also have an inextricable relationship.

“An obesogenic environment speaks to the physical environment, the economic conditions within that policy actions as well as cultural norms…there are few policies and regulations that would benefit our environment and norms. Our food consumption  is not good for our environment at all. We have to rethink not only the food that we choose but also our food environment at large,” explained Swart.

Tzaneen resident Moira Shandale  exemplifies the importance of creating a healthy food environment. The 50-year-old teacher started her own back yard garden to have nutritious food on her disposal.

“I have my own garden to plough nutritious products. Farming is the only way to have fresh produced products in cheap way or else you will have to buy. I do spinach, herbs and mint. People should embrace producing their own and try to eat healthy and if they can afford to buy them that’s also good. But they must avoid unhealthy habits in order to stay away from disease,” she said.—Health-e News