Dietitians urge South Africans to ‘Eat Fact Not Fiction’

Nutrition advice promising all sorts, from weight loss to healthier living and even cures for diseases, spread like wildfire across social media. In the era of ‘alternative facts’ and post-truth, ‘the latest, greatest nutrition advice’ from dubious sources can unfortunately tempt many away from accepted dietary guidelines and recommendations based on years of evidence.

‘Evidence and Expertise’ is the theme of Dietitian’s Week 2017, highlighting the important role of dietitians who are able to interpret nutrition science and dietary guidelines in order to customise nutrition advice for each individual. This is vital because from weight loss to a disease like diabetes, there is no ‘one size fits all’ best eating plan. Dietitians happen to be health professionals trained and qualified to do this.

Dietitians and Evidence

In the course of earning their degrees in the science of dietetics, dietitians are specifically taught the skills required to interpret scientific evidence. In order to maintain their professional registration with the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA), all practising SA dietitians also have to undertake ongoing studies that ensure they keep up with the latest knowledge provided by new and emerging evidence, in accordance with the Continuing Professional Development (CPD) programme. This means they have the latest evidence-based food, health and disease expertise at their fingertips – and you won’t find a registered dietitian in the country basing any recommendations on the long outdated food pyramid.

Dietitians and the Food-Based Dietary Guidelines

The country’s broad strokes dietary guidelines, on which public health messages are based, and which were developed according to the process recommended by the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), have also evolved over the years, featuring a notable shift from the emphasis on nutrients to the focus on actual foods, which by nature contain a variety of nutrients. ADSA, the Association for Dietetics in South Africa, provides further clarity on the guidelines with its statement on the Optimal Nutrition for South Africans. The latest visual Food Guide from the Department of Health provides a very different picture from older models such as the Food Pyramid and represents the latest FAO recommendations.

Dietitians and Patients

But the reality remains that diet is highly personal. What we eat is rooted in our culture and tradition, shaped by affordability and accessibility, and inextricably intertwined with highly variable lifestyle factors such as weight, physical activity, emotional connection to food and our consumption of non-food substances, as well as various physiological differences and genetics.

“This is where the dietitian comes to the fore,” says ADSA President and Registered Dietitian, Maryke Gallagher. “If you take a disease such as diabetes, which is a prevalent lifestyle disease in the country, and is a condition that can be managed through diet, each patient needs a tailor-made plan and focused support to make their individualised diet work towards their well-being and health. When the situation demands change around something as fundamental to life as food, then broad strokes are not necessarily sustainable solutions.”

Dietitians and Sustainability

The role that the dietitian can play in helping the communities in which they work to secure healthy food systems that are good for both people and the planet is an emerging responsibility in the profession. Dietitans are increasingly involved in facets of our modern food systems including agriculture and alternative food production methods, natural resources and ecosystems, social justice and community health issues, as well as developing food policy and food systems research that takes sustainability into account.

Dietitians and Diseases

Some may associate dietitians with merely giving advice and support to someone who wants to lose weight, but dietitians work across a range of industries. They are also experts in providing nutritional advice with regard to serious diseases and conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, liver disease, kidney disease, cancers, HIV/AIDS, TB, throat, stomach and intestinal disorders, as well as food allergies and intolerances, eating disorders, sports nutrition and life-stage nutrition (including the protection, promotion and support of breastfeeding as the best start in life). Apart from dietitians in private practice, they work in hospitals and communities, academia and industries. In addition to consulting with patients, dietitians are also involved in research, nutrition training and development of provincial and national policies.

Dietitians and Malnutrition

In South Africa, where the health issues that arise from the obesity epidemic stand side by side with those resulting from undernutrition, our dietitians’ work literally spans from one extreme to another. The South African Society for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition (SASPEN), a supporter of Dietitian’s Week, highlights the essential role the dietitian plays in providing nutritional support to promote optimal nutrition to people in hospitals, where malnutrition is a common cause of the exacerbation of disease, delayed healing and prolonged hospital stays.

The Dietitian and You

It’s clear, that as a country, our need for dietitians is multi-fold, which explains why there’s a lot more than just dietary guidelines on the mind of a registered dietitian. In consultation, your dietitian is going to be taking in many factors unique to you to work towards helping you make optimal food choices. This includes your age and gender; your genetics, body size and body image; your environment, culture, spiritual beliefs and family life; physical activity level, mental well-being and general abilities; your work life and patterns; your budget; food preferences, eating tastes and cooking skills; as well as your existing health conditions and prescribed meds.

In the hopes of steering us clear of the latest trumped up ‘diets’ and promoting a return to genuine expertise and evidence, dietitians countrywide are suggesting that we ‘Eat Facts Not Fiction’.

In collaboration with the British Dietetics Association, Dietitian’s Week is held in SA from 12th to 16th June, with the 2017 theme ‘Evidence and Expertise’.

To find a dietitian in your area, please visit the ADSA website.

 


Navigating the journey to healthy living

adsa-spokesperson_alpha-rasekhala

We recently chatted to Registered Dietitian, Alpha Rasekhala, to find out why he became a dietitian, what he enjoys most about the work her does, the challenges he faces. Alpha is also a member of the ADSA (Association for Dietetics in South Africa) Executive Committee and looks after the Representation Portfolio (Liaising with the Association’s Representatives to obtain feedback from nutrition and profession related bodies on which they serve and to obtain and provide feedback from the Association to these nutrition and profession related bodies)

Why did you become a Registered Dietitian?

I grew up in Limpopo and severe acute malnutrition was a problem. I always wanted to find a solution. As subsistence farmers we had a good harvest of maize, wild spinach,  nuts and peanuts. During high school the marketing manager from University of the North came to my school to inform us about the new dietetic programme the university was running.  I knew then and there that dietetics was my passion and could help me find the solution to my community’s malnutrition problems.

What do you enjoy most about the work you do?

I work as a private practising dietitian. I love the fact that I educate people on positive diet changes and navigate the journey to healthy living with them. It is such a great feeling when I help a client to make a turn around turn from poor nutrition choices to better choices and experience the improvement in health.

What are the most satisfying moments?

I always have a big smile on my face when a client makes the connection between the chronic disease of lifestyle and the bad food choices. Helping a client find the missing piece of the nutrition puzzle and transform their relationship with food is so rewarding.

What have been your career highlights?

I have worked in government, industry and private health sector. I have done a full circle in dietetics. I have been honoured to serve on the board of dietetics and nutrition for 10 years. I have learned about governance and regulations. I am on the ADSA executive committee, for the second time. I have completed my masters in dietetics. I have met amazing people through my dietetics journey.

What are the most challenging aspects of your career?

Nutrition misinformation. There is a lot of advise out there and it can be downright confusing to sort through it all and make sense of it. Most people can cook and think that dietetics is all about cooking. The majority of people forget that nutrition is a science, and the advise given is evidence based. Poor nutrition advice has life implications which have serious consequences.

How do you cope after a day of nutrition disaster and bad eating choices?

I am never on diet. I enjoy food. My motto is moderation is key.

What are the three things that you think people should stop saying when they meet a dietitian?

  • Email me a meal plan as if we are in a business of issuing out meal plans. People do not understand that a lifestyle change is needed to achieve a goal.
  • What should I do to lose weight?
  • Are carbohydrates fattening? No magic food causes weight loss and no food is inherently fattening. Eat a variety of foods from leagues, meat, dairy, grains, fruits, vegetables and small amount of fat daily.

What should clients look out for when deciding which dietitian to work with?

Look for a dietitian who understands your cultural background, beliefs, socio economic status and eating habits. Someone who will listen to you and work with you and be a partner through your journey to a healthier you.

What is your favourite dish and your favourite treat food?

My favourite dish  is samp and beans, spinach and beef stew.

My favourite treat is strawberry cheese cake.

To find a Registered Dietitian in your area, visit the Find a Registered Dietitian page on the ADSA website.