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Can plant-based diets make South Africa healthier?

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South Africa’s health trajectory is looking poor, and one of the reasons is the catastrophic effect of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) on the population.

NCDs, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, are claiming more lives than any other diseases apart from TB. Moreover, 68% of women and 31% of men are overweight and obese, leading risk factors for these NCDs.

The increase in NCDs has been linked to diets that include a high intake of saturated (or unhealthy) fats, alcohol, sugary food and drinks, increased consumption of salt, and frequent intake of energy-dense but nutrient-poor foods.

But plant-based diets can mitigate these dietary risk factors through the reduction of saturated fats (mostly found in animal products and ultra-processed foods) and increasing minimally processed and whole foods, which are rich in nutrients and naturally contain less salt and sugar.

The theme for this year’s National Nutrition Week (9-15 October) is “Make healthy food choices easier.” Following a plant-based diet could be one way of doing this.

What is a plant-based diet?

To many people, ‘plant-based’ may sound like just another diet trend. Many people may also still associate this term with veganism or vegetarianism. However, the term plant-based refers to an eating pattern that consists of foods primarily sourced from plants and does not necessarily exclude dairy or meat but focuses on consuming plant sources like fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains.

Examples of these dietary patterns include the Mediterranean, Nordic and DASH dietary approaches. It’s also backed by science as having the potential to reduce the risk of heart problems, cancer, type 2 diabetes, and obesity.

Fibre: the secret ingredient?

In addition to the benefits of the micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), which typically increase as you include more plants in your diet, the abundant inclusion of fibre in the plant-based diet is a major contributor to the prevention of NCD’s.

There are two types of fibre, soluble fibre (good sources included apples, peas, avocado, broccoli, flaxseeds, psyllium husk, beans, barley, carrots, and oats) and insoluble fibre (abundant in bran, seeds, nuts, potatoes, green beans and other fruit and vegetables). Many plant products contain both soluble and insoluble fibre, though some contain more of the one than the other.

Dietary fibre is basically the component in many plant sources that the body cannot digest. These undigested components increase satiety, thus making you feel fuller compared to eating low-fibre food, thus supporting healthy weight management.

Fibre can also assist with managing blood sugar levels, supporting type 2 diabetes management as well as reducing our risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. Fibre does this by delaying the release of sugar into the bloodstream, thus supporting more consistent blood sugar levels throughout the day. This means one will be less likely to have energy slumps, which leads to poor dietary decisions.

Increased cholesterol levels contribute to the risk for cardiovascular diseases, but again fibre can be an aid. Soluble fibre binds to cholesterol in the intestine and removes it from the body. This contributes to lowering total and LDL cholesterol (which is commonly known as the “bad” cholesterol, which we want less of) in the body.

But can it be affordable?

The growing interest around incorporating more plants and less meat into the diet resulted in a surge of meat alternatives and plant-based products on our supermarket shelves.

Food manufacturers have capitalised on this emerging trend by creating everything from mock-fish goujons to vegan eggs – and these often come at a hefty price tag, contributing to the commonly held belief that a plant-based diet is expensive.

The global vegan food market is currently estimated to be valued at R484 billion, according to a recent press release.

However, the good news is that one doesn’t need to buy these costly, often ultra-processed foods to try out a plant-forward eating approach.

A plant-based lifestyle was originally designed around emphasising whole foods (such as vegetables, fruit, beans, legumes) and minimally processed foods (such as milk, tinned, dried or frozen produce, pre-cut produce, peanut butter).

Simply put, foods that are not refined and do not have added ingredients. Similarly, if one thinks about meat, an often expensive grocery shop purchase, then many of the plant-based, whole food counterparts, like beans and legumes, are a much better option for the pocket and health.

How to incorporate a plant-based diet on a budget

Here are some tips for eating more plants without breaking the bank:

Easy does it: Re-imagine family favourites, like spaghetti bolognaise or lamb moussaka with lentils, as opposed to the usual mincemeat base. Bulking up dishes with legumes (beans, lentils, chickpeas) can happen slowly to introduce the family to this new plant-based change by doing half beans and half meat. Alternatively, one can start with one day a week, like meat-free Monday, to gradually include more plants and whole foods into the household’s eating choices.

Dress it up: Add more vegetables to your favourite dishes, like grating baby marrow and carrots into your meatballs or adding tomato to your scrambled egg.
Swop it out. Replace the energy bars and cookies with fruit and plain yoghurt for a snack or dessert. The latter option will contribute to your daily fibre goal, and so your body will reap the rewards.

Waste not. If you often find yourself with wilted or overripe fruit and vegetables because you couldn’t finish them fast enough, cook and freeze the produce to be added to soups, stews or desserts. The nutritional value of these frozen vegetables and fruit, like it’s fibre content, will be well retained. Only some of the micronutrients will be lost in the reheating process.

Support your children to make the switch. Children spend a lot of their pocket money on tuckshop goodies like sweets, chips, chocolates, fizzy cooldrinks and pies. Consider packing an envy-worthy healthy lunchbox for school with plant-based food items like fruit and peanut butter or vegetable sticks and a hummus or bean dip. Make them part of the decision process.

Aim for better balance. Build your way up to ensuring half of your plate consists of vegetables at lunch and supper. Incorporate 1-2 fruits per day by adding to breakfast or enjoying as a snack. By doing so, one will benefit from the fibre, vitamins and minerals necessary for combating non-communicable diseases.
Increasing evidence shows the link between plant-based living and improved health outcomes, reducing risk for non-communicable diseases and ensuring longevity. Increasing one’s daily intake of fruit, vegetables, legumes, and wholegrains does not have to be costly or inconvenient.

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