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2 April 2020
Nutrition research needed for public health policies, argues UWC Class of 2020 graduate

(Published - 2 April 2020)

Tshilidzi Manuga was often considered unfeminine in her village because she was so skinny. Then she started studying nutrition and realised the importance of maintaining healthy body weight. Being stigmatised had a lasting impact on her and motivated her research.

This week she graduated with a Master’s Degree in Dietetics and Nutrition from the University of the Western Cape. Manuga, from Limpopo, said most people in low-income areas are not educated enough about the dangers of obesity. And when there are programmes to address Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs), rural residents are usually overlooked because of a perception that poor people cannot be obese.

Manuga looked at the relationship between food environments, obesity and NCD status among adults aged 30 to 70 in Langa, an urban township in the Western Cape, and Mount Frere, a rural area in the Eastern Cape.

“People in rural areas are facing both undernutrition and overnutrition at the same time, and I felt the need to do a study that will expose that,” Manuga explained.

The aim of her research, she says, was to explore the influence the environment has on food practices, obesity and NCD status in adults. She compared which residents are more obese, hypertensive and diabetic in the two areas. This was done to establish an association between their food environment, their weight and their NCD status, taking into consideration their socio-economic status, physical activity, consumption of fast foods and availability of a garden.

Manuga said her study affirms that the socio-economic status of black adults differs based on where they are located. Even though those in urban areas have better socio-economic status, they are still living below the poverty line.

The study also established that the majority of women from both urban and rural areas are more obese compared to men, and the prevalence of obesity is slightly higher in the urban areas.

People from the rural areas were found to be more hypertensive than those from the urban area – something she did not expect.

Diabetes is still most prevalent in the urban area. The food environment plays a vital role in the way food is perceived, and so does nutrition knowledge. Urban participants, according to Manuga, had a slightly higher nutrition knowledge score than their rural counterparts. This could be attributed to access to a variety of sources of information.

She concluded that overall, obesity and NCDs are on the rise, and in both areas. “The food environment that people live in plays a role in the source of nutrition knowledge they have, as well as their perceptions on food.

“Nutrition has always been important to me because being a ‘skinny’ woman, I was always perceived in the black community as not being feminine, and it bothered me until I studied nutrition and realised the importance of maintaining a healthy weight,” she said.

“I hope more studies like this will be conducted and that they will influence decision-makers to change some policies in favour of the availability and accessibility of healthy food, and educate people on the dangers of obesity.”