“South Africa faces a double burden of malnutrition,” says UK registered dietitian and South African resident Sasha Watkins.
On the one hand, over-nutrition and obesity are increasing and raising the risk of diabetes and heart attacks in South Africans, while on the other hand, under-nutrition is threatening the health and wellbeing of many who can’t afford a balanced diet. In most cases of under-nutrition, vitamin and mineral supplementation are essential.
Here are the five most common vitamin and mineral deficiencies in South Africa:
Vitamin A is involved in immune function and vision and is found in foods such as sweet potatoes, carrots, dark leafy greens, lettuce, fish and liver.
In a 2005 National Food consumption survey, over 63% of South African children between the ages of one and nine years old were found to be vitamin A deficient. According to the Health Department of South Africa, vitamin A deficiency is a major contributor to under-five mortality and can cause visual impairment and increase the risk of measles and diarrhoea.
The health risks for children with vitamin A deficiency is such a concern in South Africa that the National Health Department created a Vitamin A supplementation policy for South Africa in 2012. The policy guidelines provide guidance on how to best address vitamin A deficiencies in the country.
“Vitamin D is called the sunshine vitamin as sunlight is a key source of vitamin D. We make it under our skin when we spend time in the sun, but lately people have started avoiding the sun and applying more sunscreen,” says Watkins. The risk of skin cancer is real, but your body still needs vitamin D since it helps to absorb calcium to ensure strong and healthy bones.
According to Watkins, people with darker skin are more susceptible to developing a vitamin D deficiency, because darker skin has more protection against sunlight.
A vitamin D deficiency differs from other deficiencies because it isn’t easily addressed by dietary changes. Rich sources of vitamin D include oily fish, such as sardines, pilchards, salmon and trout, fortified breakfast cereals, eggs and offal. However, since vitamin D is principally produced by the body in response to the skin being exposed to sunlight, it may be necessary to tackle a vitamin D deficiency by taking a supplement.
Iron is a common deficiency in South Africa especially among women and vegetarians, says Watkins, who is also the director of EatFit South Africa. Blood loss, like during heavy menstruation or childbirth, is the leading causes of iron deficiency among women. Vegetarians, per definition, do not eat meat and therefore may have a higher risk of developing an iron deficiency.
According to the Iron Disorders Institute people consume two types of iron: non-heme and heme.
Non-heme iron is primarily found in plants such as beans, lentils and other legumes. According to Watkins, your body needs sufficient amounts of vitamin C in order to absorb non-heme iron, and particularly vegetarians should take note of this.
Meat, especially red meat, is the best source of heme iron. When we eat meat we consume the blood proteins, the hemoglobin and myoglobin contained in the flesh of the animal. Heme iron is easily absorbed by the body and the best source of iron for people who are iron deficient.
Calcium is important at all ages for strong bones and teeth. Unfortunately, a lack of calcium can lead to serious health complications such as osteoporosis and cataracts.
According to the British Dietary Association, you can make sure you meet your daily calcium requirement by consuming foods such as low-fat dairy products like yogurt and milk, and sardines or pilchards.
Vitamin B 12
Vitamin B 12 is found in animal-based foods such as eggs, beef and dairy products. According to Watkins, vegans and vegetarians are therefore particularly prone to developing a vitamin B 12 deficiency.
Vitamin B 12 plays a holistic role in your well-being as it helps to make DNA and red blood cells, for example.
When a person suffers from a vitamin B 12 deficiency, they may experience symptoms such as diarrhoea, tiredness, light headedness or vision loss.
Supplements not substitutes
The American Heart Association recommends that healthy people get the nutrients they need by eating a variety of foods. They emphasise that vitamin or mineral supplements cannot be a substitute for a healthy, balanced diet that limits excess calories, saturated fat, trans fat, sodium and dietary cholesterol.
If you are unsure about your nutrient needs, make an appointment to see a doctor or dietitian.