Mental well-being: Healthy diets a luxury for many SA kids

Healthy diets remain a luxury for many South African children during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
South African households have been hard hit during the pandemic where at least 21% have reported that someone in the house went hungry during May and June last year. (Photo by Victor Nnakwe on Unsplash)

Healthy diets are crucial for the overall mental well-being of a child. In South Africa, close to 3 million children go to bed hungry, causing physiological and emotional stress.

A recent study led by the University of East Anglia found that eating a more nutritious diet was associated with better mental wellbeing in children. This included healthier breakfast and lunch habits. The study focused on 1253 primary school pupils aged between 8-11 years and 7570 secondary school pupils aged 12 – 18 years.

In secondary school pupils, researchers found that higher consumption of fruits and vegetables was linked with high mental well-being scores. Those who didn’t eat any breakfast had an almost 6% lower score. Only 25.2% of secondary school children reported consuming the recommended 5-a-day fruits and vegetables compared to almost 30% of primary school children.

Food insufficiency linked to poor mental health

Although there’s no specific data on the fruit and vegetable consumption habits of school going children in South Africa, several studies have found a general low intake of fresh fruits and vegetables especially in rural and urban poor areas.

Dr Chantell Witten, a registered dietician and an affiliate of the DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence in Food Security, says that nutrition impacts growth and development. “Poor nutrition means poor brain development. An under-developed brain is a poorly functioning brain and it can cause mental disorders,” said Witten.

She continued: “Hunger is already a physiological and an emotional stressor. So, a hungry child’s mental and physical health will be affected. The quality of the diet affects growth including brain growth.”

According to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), 17% of children and adolescents suffer from mental disorders. Research has shown that half of all mental health conditions start at the age of 14, and that household food insufficiency is independently associated with having a 12-month and lifetime mental disorder diagnosis.

This means that the incidence of mental health disorders could be reduced if the problem of food insufficiency is adequately addressed.

Inadequate access to nutritious food

Isobel Frye, Director of Studies at the Poverty and Inequality Institute, said although South Africa doesn’t have generalised poverty, people will continue to suffer with wealth concentrated in the hands of a few.

“I think that food scarcity in South Africa is one of the fundamental indicators of the lack of transformation since 1994,” said Frye.

She continued: “1 in 4 South Africans fall below the poverty line. This is a significant indictment on the distribution of resources because South Africa is an up and coming country. It’s that the wealth is concentrated in the hands of very few who have access to everything, whereas for the majority, they just have enough food for survival.”

South Africa has been experiencing food insecurity before the COVID-19 pandemic with 11% (6.5 million) people suffering from hunger in 2019. During the hard lockdown in 2020, a survey conducted by CRAMS in July 2020 found that 47% of adults surveyed said that their household ran out of money to buy food in April. Between May and June, 21% said that someone in the household went hungry in the previous seven days.

Food gardens and soup kitchens

Witten said that interventions such as food gardens and soup kitchens can contribute to decreasing food insecurity. 

“These interventions can alleviate hunger and close the gap on the lack of food and nutrition. They must be a component of a bigger food security plan that addresses the chronic food shortages in households,” added Witten.

Georgina Bennet, founder of Safe Study SA, works at a soup kitchen in Victoria Yards feeding families and children. They feed over 400 people three times a week, providing them with a hot meal to take home.

“Safe Study is able to provide over 100 children every week with a nutritious meal. Our aim is to ensure that all of our children get a full meal and when we can, we send food home to their families. We try to include a fruit and a protein when we can,” said Bennet.

She believes that the best way to tackle food insecurity is through education and empowering communities to take action. This can be achieved by giving them the tools to grow and cultivate their own food sources.

Safe Study SA also offers children educational support and teaches them to grow their own vegetables.

Quick fixes needed

The NIDS-CRAM survey found that the increase in child support grants to R500 and social distress grants of R350 helped improve food security.

“A quick fix is exactly what we need right now, given the fact that we have no idea when this is going to end. We need to look at the fix which has the best returns and one that can aid a long social society transformation,” added Frye.

Witten said that South Africa needs to institute a universal basic income grant to support households to afford a good health-promoting diet. She added that South Africans are dependent on child and pension grants and cannot afford healthy diets.

“The majority of SA households cannot afford healthy diets. The government needs to implement a National Nutrition Literacy Programme such as the Eat Right India based on Eat Right America. This will help people access good information to made good food choices,” said Witten. – Health-e News 


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