Calories are cultural

Professor Yanga Zembe is a socio-anthropologist and researcher at the University of the Western Cape. She recently presented her findings as part of an ongoing study on how a strong socio-political context frames the food landscape in South Africa, at the first Yoghurt Summit held in Johannesburg.

Professor Yanga Zembe

South Africa is a richly diverse and multi-cultural country, but diets tell a different story as dietary diversity in South Africa is in fact quite low. A national study on food consumption in children (NFCS) showed a very monotonous type of diet with specific deficiencies including: energy; iron; zinc; calcium; vitamins A; C; E; B6; B2; niacin and folic acid. This is largely due to much of the population consuming large amounts of maize meal, bread and sugar with low intakes of animal protein and fruit and vegetables. It is known that a diverse diet is more likely to contain all the essential nutrients than a monotonous one. Maslow’s famous Hierarchy of Needs places physiological needs, like food and water, at the forefront of a person’s needs. Yet results from the 2013 South African National Health Survey showed that almost three in ten people in South Africa go hungry daily, while one in four go hungry most months of the year. Prof Zembe confirmed this contrasts with soaring rates of obesity.

She added the major political transitions experienced in South Africa during and post-apartheid have shaped the current food landscape in particular ways. Pre-1994, South Africans faced domestic and global isolation and for each population group in the country, this meant limited exposure to a broader food culture. Post 1994, South Africa opened in political and socially dramatic ways; an influx of global food products, cultures and trends, suddenly proliferated what had been an otherwise closed food environment. This resulted in more food choices from convenience stores. This increased exposure to food, complicated people’s food choices a great deal. In this new food space, healthier foods like maas, bread or pap enjoy limited popularity than in previous times, because they are associated with the days that were linked to hardship or they are considered unmodern. On the other hand, unhealthy food options such as take-out meals are consumed far more regularly because of their association with upward social mobility, wealth and notions of having arrived.

The challenge for health practitioners trying to help people eat healthier is to acknowledge these tensions and complexities. Prof Zembe urges that in this context, we should strive to adapt to the eating patterns of South Africans rather than trying to change them completely. The adage of going back to one’s roots and culture is relevant. This said; there are ways that one can create a hybrid of culture and modernity. For example: although maas is no longer being consumed, yoghurt is a new modern fermented product that still upholds the virtues of being made from milk and live culture. It also has added nutrients to address nutrient deficiencies.

Why we eat what we eat

From the emerging findings of the study there is a strong indication that, contrary to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, food is not just about sustenance but a way of meeting both emotional and physiological needs. Food and eating practices are dynamic and influenced by a variety of factors such as fulfilling hunger, helping with expressions and feelings of love, belonging, contentment, self-esteem and social inclusion. Her preliminary findings suggest eating is a complex and tensioned area, not as simple as once believed, and this may be overlooked when healthcare professionals advise their patients on healthy eating. Social media, in particular Facebook, is also a hugely influential space. She appeals to health professionals to penetrate this platform as an avenue to disseminate accurate information on good food choices and nutrition.