The evolution to healthy eating

Food is fuel, but this concept is relatively new to me. I wasn’t always conscious of what I ate and I would often wolf down food because I was either hungry, bored, or emotional. That was me in 2017, writes Reesha Chibba.

My life changed in December 2017 when I decided to investigate my tiredness and inability to lose weight. I didn’t have any of the usual signs of pre-diabetes like thirstiness, excessive urination in the middle of the night, weight gain, or lethargy. I was just tired and I unknowingly blamed it on my early morning shifts at work which I have been working on and off for more than a decade at that time.  

A rude awakening  

My alarm would scream every week-day at 2:45am, violently interrupting my body’s cortisol function, and killing any chance it ever had of recovering and operating normally throughout the day. I would get dressed and collapse into the routine of my duties and execute them to the best of my ability until my shift was over. Then I would get into the car and drive home with a lump in my throat, analysing and re-analysing everything I did and said, and beat myself for anything I failed at. I was exhausted, every day,  

I would go to the gym run for as long as I could and switch off mentally on the treadmill. That was my routine. My life played out like a CD on repeat, from Monday to Friday. Occasionally I would enter the odd endurance event and train for it like an athlete in an effort to excite and re-invigorate myself. But my body was crumbling, much like a Tennis biscuit dipped in tea. My pancreas was malfunctioning and producing insulin three times more than the average human, my hair was falling by the handful, and my mental health was deteriorating. On the outside I looked and acted fine, but on the inside, I was gasping for air.   

Time of reckoning  

In March 2018 after numerous visits to my GP I sat across from a specialist who told me I needed to change my lifestyle, or else live with diabetes for the rest of my life. And he wasn’t whimsical about his recommendations, he was firm. He gave me a choice and the thought of popping tablets for the rest of my life with shocked me. I had to change, and I knew it. 

I started taking Metformin to help regulate and control my body’s insulin production, vitamin D to kickstart my sleep hormone, cortisol, and Burnout by Solal because well, I was pretty burnt out. He also recommended I see a dietician and his exact words were, She’ll guide you on what you to eat. I wasn’t disheartened, but I was scared, and instantly I knew that my sweet tooth and raging love affair with carbs was going to have to come to an end.  

My dietician didn’t give me an eating plan or strip me of junk food like most diets out there. For a year, she coaxed me into gentle eating patterns by reducing my intake of carbs and increasing the amount of vegetables in my diet. She educated me about various food groups, the properties, nutritional content and its functions. She entertained emails from me requesting more snacks and peanuts because I initially starved and felt hungry all the time, but I actually wasn’t. This happened during winter when the dip in temperatures make you want to nibble everything in the house, including the cat.  

She nudged me to make better choices by eating timeously and not binge eat and starve my body of carbs early in the day. She also provided me with skills to indulge in a donut, practically, without shocking my body. So instead of treating myself willy-nilly to junk food, I’ve gradually learnt how to manipulate myself mentally and give it treats twice a week without hurting myself. And I eat everything, donuts, chocolate, bread (Rye), biscuits, chips, popcorn … the list is epic. But like everything in life, moderation is key. And if mistakes happen and I accidentally decide to eat a slab of chocolate because I’m having a bad day, I rectify the situation by trying again and being kind to myself. No one is perfect. Food is not a reward and restricting yourself shouldn’t ever be a punishment. Food is my only fuel and I’ve learnt what makes me function and function well.  

Learning what my body needs has been a game-changer these past two years. I scrutinise everything in stores and think twice about condiments and sauces. I try to steer clear of using stock cubes and instead of using store-bought dressing and mayo, I make my own because I know what’s in it.  

Every little change  

I’m also not the best person to shop with because I’m a linger-longer  every time I come across new products I tend to linger in the aisles, for longer. My eyes dart straight to the back of the packet to check the sodium, sugar, fat and carb content. And you’ll often see me doing the math or talking to myself about whether or not to buy what I’m holding. I’ve become that girl.  

I’ve learnt now that without being cognisant of what is in different products, you will never truly be able to gain control of your diet. Because there is so much variety on the shelves and most of them these days are touted as healthy  and they probably are healthier than other products   but they are actually full of carbs, sodium or fat. Being skilled, finally, on how to identify and interpret the nutritional values has opened my eyes to a new world of possibilities.  

Fulfillment and knowledge 

My weight gradually peeled away over the months I was with my dietician and I started getting very creative in the kitchen. I was encouraged by the results and my smaller pants to be honest and would tweak all my favourite foods to make it less carb-rich or fatty. Instead of buying coconut milk, I started making my own and adding it to Thai-infused dishes because real coconut milk is very high in fat. I also started making quinoa roti instead of using refined flours and I gradually started ghosting foods that made me feel tired or heavy. My sweet tooth has never relaxed so I’ve learnt to bake with dark chocolate and Xylitol instead. 

And as the time progressed my energy levels started to increase as well. I’ve always been a runner, and an avid swimmer, but last year I challenged myself to taking part in the 94.7 Cycle Challenge and doing a triathlon. I did my first Ironman sprint towards the end of the year, just weeks after my first cycle race. And I felt awesome. This year I cycled the Cape Cycle Challenge, previously known as the Argus with water as a supplement and my very own date, coconut, and peanut butter concoction.   

I have trained myself to run a 10km with only having had water, honey, and coffee and I because I feel so in tune with my body, I push it to see how far I can go with various homemade power treats. My point is; over time I’ve rediscovered my body and discovered all its kinks, loves and hates. My palette loves chocolate but my body doesn’t. When I eat chocolate, I feel tired almost immediately. But when it is that time of the month, chocolate makes me feel euphoric. My endorphins kick in and my body collapses into its happy self. I’ve also noticed that my body metabolises caffeine differently on days when I sleep well and am rested and on days when I don’t.  

I’m learning every day, about myself and my body. I noticed the subtle changes and I am loving my food evolution.   

I’ve also started a blog to share some of my recipes and experiences with people. I don’t think I am different or better than anybody, but I do think it’s important to share knowledge and tales of fascination and flops from the warmth of one’s kitchen. My websiteOn the Boardfeatures only what I eat and what I like to eat. When I tried to lose weight before, I would motivate myself by reading stories of people who dropped excessive amounts of weight by exercising and dieting along with supplements. I tried everything but nothing really worked for me until I started understanding what I was feeding myself. 

I have stopped seeing my dietician for over a year and my weight has never returned. I am not razor thin, nor toned to perfection; but I am happier and healthier than I’ve ever been in my life. I no longer take Metformin, and all my levels are the lowest it’s ever been. My story is not extraordinary, but it’s one of balance. I balance protein, carbohydrates, fats and treats, daily. – Health-e News  

Reesha Chibba is an output editor at eNCA and an online food blogger. Visit  her blog at www.ontheboard.co.za 

#LockdownSA: Looming food emergency due to structural inequalities

The nutrition challenges facing South Africa are complex and underpinned by historical and current inequalities, while undernutrition coexists with the rising incidence of obesity and non-communicable diseases, say experts.

Associations and experts working in nutrition and food systems say that the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent national lockdown has emphasised the importance of food security and nutritional wellbeing for all in the country.  

They also say that it has exposed the vulnerabilities and weaknesses of the country’s current food systems. In view of this, the Association for Dietetics in South Africa (ADSA), the Nutrition Society of South Africa (NSSA) and Dietetics-Nutrition is a Profession (DIP) penned an open letter that calls on the government to address malnutrition in all its forms.   

The health bodies say that, nationally, efforts to contain the spread of Covid-19 have resulted in increased food shortages, nutrition deficits, and an interruption of social and other nutrition support services that the most marginalised groups in the country rely on. 

Diet affected by lockdown  

According to Dr Christine Taljaar-Krugell, ADSA President, more than a quarter of the South African female adult population is overweight and more than a third obese, with the highest prevalence (42%) among urban women 

Moreover, it is estimated that 269 000 non-communicable disease (NCD) related deaths occur in the country annually.  

Speaking to Health-e News Maria van der Merwe, ADSA spokesperson says the initial hard lockdown response had an immediate and acute impact on households and communities in a multitude of ways 

With regards to food and nutrition [there was] interrupted access to food due to restrictions on travelling and informal trading, and discontinuation of food and nutrition social programmes such as the National School Nutrition Programme and feeding at Early Childhood Development programmes, she explains. 

She continues: “Although the nutrition situation in the country has been of concern prior to the pandemic, the acute nature and vast extent of the lockdown brought the plight of individuals and communities to the forefront.” 

Prof Corinna Walsh, NSSA President, explains that food relief and social relief interventions, such as food parcels and social grants, could address more immediate nutritional needs, but broader actions are required to address the underlying causes of malnutrition.  

Transforming food systems 

DIP notes that the pandemic has come at a time when global food security and food systems are already under strain due to natural disasters, climate change and other challenges 

This has exacerbated the need to transform food systems to become sustainable and resilientDIP says. 

In a way, the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the challenges of food insecurity, hunger and malnutrition which existed prior to the outbreak but are now affecting more individuals and households,” says Phunyuka Ngwenya, of DIP. 

She further says that, “the Covid-19 pandemic is unlike anything we have faced in our generation and requires a huge coordinated response from the public and private sector as well as efforts by each individual to curb the spread.  

Ngwenya adds that the anticipated number of Covid-19 cases will increase rapidly over the next few weeks and months, straining an already burdened economy and health system.  

Over the long term, the threat of Covid-19 to food security and nutrition is a global concern, with a looming food emergency. Ittherefore, requires immediate coordinated action to limit the long-term adverse effects.” 

UN global warning 

The open letter arrives at a time when the United Nations has recognised the threat of the coronavirus pandemic to food security and warns of a dire food emergency if immediate coordinated action isn’t taken 

While hunger has been reduced and food access in South Africa has improved over the past 15 years, research shows that 1.7million households still experienced hunger in 2017, and the pace of addressing inadequate food access has been too slow to achieve the goal of zero hunger by 2030. 

According to ADSA, NSSA and DIP, early indications suggest a rapid rise in hunger prevalence since the lockdown was imposed, with up to 24% of residents not having money to buy food.  

In addition, in this context, food prices have increased by as much as 30% over the past two months, further adding to the financial strain on households. It is also anticipated that maternal and child mortality is likely to increase directly and indirectly as a result of the Covid-19 outbreak. 

Coordinated efforts needed  

The health bodies say an important first step will be to recognise the severity of the situation and the need for coordinated strategic efforts to address the underlying factors that contribute to malnutrition, such as insufficient access to food, affordability of fresh foods, poor health services and a lack of quality water and sanitation.  

In a collective response sent to Health-e News by ADSA, NSSA and DIP, they mention that food security and nutritional needs have to be addressed collectively with interventions aimed at tackling these factors.  

It will require concerted efforts from government, the private sector and civil society to address the immediate, underlying and structural causes of undernutrition,” say the associations. 

Thepropose that the government must: 

  • Prioritise nutrition on policy agendas related to health and social security, including a regulatory framework to support access to healthy and affordable foods.  
  • Provide strategic direction and ensure coordinated and aligned programming to address food and nutrition security, in collaboration with other sectors including civil society organisations.  
  • Coordinate an adequate and targeted food and social relief approach, prioritising the most vulnerable and needy for short term mitigation. Food relief should be standardised and tailored to the nutritional needs of targeted beneficiaries, especially children.  
  • Progress towards universal health coverage, to ensure access to quality, essential health care.  
  • Prioritise the challenges faced by specific populations, including the elderly, women (especially women of childbearing age), children and those with pre-existing medical conditions (most notably HIV/AIDS, TB and NCDs).  
  • Implement well-funded coordinated strategies to actively address the main drivers of malnutrition; paying attention to food, nutrition and health, backed up by responsive social protection mechanisms. 
  • Improve access to quality nutrition care through investment in human resources to increase the number of qualified nutrition professionals as well as education opportunities for other cadres of workers that provide nutrition services in primary care settings. 
  • Promote nutrition education of the public through targeted and relevant nutrition messaging and communication campaigns. – Health-e News 

#Helpafriendout: Community-led project centres nutrition needs

“Growing up, I used to help my grandparents with their small garden where we grew flowers, cabbage and spinach. That’s where I developed an interest in farming,” says Amogelang Moroba, chairperson of the Soshanguve-based organisation #Helpafriendout.

Food security and hunger has come to the fore in South Africa, as the Covid-19 pandemic and national lockdown has exacerbated pre-existing food system inequalities, and increased food prices. The United Nations has also recently warned governments that the world faces a food crisis that has been unseen for at least 50 years.  

Youth farmers  

But, three young adults from Soshanguve’s Block H have first-hand experience with the effects of food instability, hunger and gender-based violence in their community, and wanted to do something about it. 

Amogelang Moroba#Helpafriendout chairpersonOreneile Matjene, secretary, and Aubrey Nkuna started #Helpafriendout in February 2019. The organisation broadly focusses on farming, tackling gender-based violence and youth development and upskilling.  

“As an organisation we do social and economic development. Covid-19 affected our community badly. People have lost their jobs and it has increased gender-based violence through decreasing incomes,” Moroba tells Health-e News.  

He adds that access to healthy food remains unattainable for most because of unemployment issuestherefore, #Helpafriendout fulfils an important service in the Soshanguve community. 

Last month the organisation launched a new project called #Makemyhoodclean. The project attracted the attention of the Gauteng Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, who backs the initiative 

There are two project sites where the #Healpafriendout team plants vegetables which are then sold. Youth in the area are hired to help farm, based on their interest and passion for farming. 

Food supply futures 

The trio see themselves and the organisation growing into the food produce supply sphere. In the future, they want to supply the likes of Spar and the 70-80 Street food and vegetable vendors in their neighbourhood. 

“Growing up, I used to help my grandparents with their small garden where we grew flowers, cabbage and spinach. That’s where I developed an interest in farming,” explains Moroba. 

He went on to say that he sees himself being successful in farming, but also making others fall in love with farming.  

Matjene’s interest in agriculture started in primary school when he entered a competition for best school garden, and Nkuna’s foray into farming was borne from necessity – seeing the lack of food and malnutrition issues in his neighbourhood spurred him into action. 

MorobaMatjene and Nkuna all say they have much to learn about the art of farming, but they believe their passion drives them. – Health-e News