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National Nutrition Week: Feel Good with Food

October 10, 2023

National Nutrition Week: Feel Good with Food - featured image

Why does nutrition matter?

“You are what you eat” is a saying that we’ve all heard but many of us haven’t stopped to take in the full impact of that statement. Poor diet is listed as the leading cause of death worldwide and the second-highest contributor to diseases such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease. It is estimated that one-third of all cancers are caused by poor diet and regular consumption of processed meats carries the same risk as smoking when it comes to cancer.  There is more and more evidence that poor diet has in the development of mental health issues such as depression and increasing fruit and vegetable consumption can improve mental health and even reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s in elderly populations.

What is a healthy diet?

There are lots of different diets that can be found on social media and sometimes it can be confusing to know what we should and shouldn’t be eating. A healthy diet is one that contains a variety of minimally processed foods; limiting foods that are highly processed. Highly processed foods, also known as ultra-processed foods, contain a large number (five or more) ingredients, many of which you don’t recognise or wouldn’t have in your cupboard at home. These foods are often high in salt and sugar and include processed meats such as polony and fish fingers, biscuits, pies and sugary drinks (including energy drinks and fruit juice.  Instead of these foods, we want to focus on eating fruits, vegetables, whole-grain foods such as oats and barley and legumes such as beans and lentils. We should aim to have more than five servings of fruits and vegetables every day.

Isn’t a healthy diet expensive?

While certain healthy foods can be expensive, there are many very affordable healthy foods. Making foods at home instead of buying meals helps to make foods healthier and cheaper. Some tips to make budget-friendly healthy choices are:

  • Some healthy eating practices can help to save money. For example, restricting your intake of Energy drinks or unhealthy snacks like sweets will result in spending less. Buying three energy drinks a week will cost you around R220 per month. If you usually have one of these drinks per day; you could be saving close to R600 per month by avoiding these high-sugar drinks.
  • Buying fruits and vegetables in season. Vegetables such as carrots, cabbage, beetroot and spinach are vegetables that are affordable most of the year.
  • Brown rice is a healthy whole grain but it can be expensive barley and pearled wheat are low-cost alternatives.
  • Lentils and beans are low-cost proteins that are high in fibre and nutrients like zinc. If you buy them tinned, rinse them with water to remove salt. It’s even cheaper to buy dry and cook themselves. Red lentils cook quickly and don’t need to be soaked. Other lentils and beans can be soaked overnight (in Wonderbag or covered in a blanket to keep in in the heat) and then cooked the next day.
  • Affordable tinned fish such as sardines are high in healthy fats and calcium. These can be eaten as is or added to stews.

Tips for including more fruits and vegetables

If you are not used to including fruits and vegetables it can be challenging to start eating these foods more regularly. Try these tips to start increasing your intake:

  • Add veggies to stews. Add carrots, baby marrow, peppers or peas to any stew that you are making
  • Add to mincemeat. Add frozen mixed vegetables or chopped or grated carrots, green beans and tomatoes to the mincemeat.
  • Have tomato-based meals. Make your own tomato sauce and add to chicken, red meat or pork as a sauce. Slice tomatoes and onions, mixed herbs and some pepper and simmer for 15 min until cooked and saucy.
  • Salads are a great way to introduce vegetables in summer. Be more creative than the usual cucumber, lettuce and tomato and try including veggies like beetroot, baby spinach, peas, broccoli etc. in your salads.
  • Add raw vegetables such as sliced carrots, cucumber and shredded cabbage to lunch boxes or as snacks


Change is hard, where do I start?

Making any change can be overwhelming and it’s difficult to make sustainable changes, especially when we’re trying to make too many changes at once. It can be helpful to start with one or two small changes and then once those have become your ‘new normal’; you can try the next change. It may help to identify one unhealthy food/ beverage that you want to try to limit and one healthy food you want to include more often.

Be specific when you make these goals. For example, it’s not enough to say you want to reduce the number of energy drinks you consume. Decide that you are going to reduce it to only twice a week, or once a week or whatever is a challenging, yet realistic option for you. Instead of saying you want to eat more vegetables; set the goal of including vegetables at least once a day. As you achieve these goals you can continue to change them- i.e. once you include vegetables once a day for a few weeks; try to make it twice a day. Or you can further reduce your intake of energy drinks to only once a week.

Making dietary changes is challenging and the results aren’t always immediate. Remember that you’re investing in your health and your future health every time you make a healthy food choice.

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