Evaluation of a nutrition and health education program on components of metabolic health on women from under-resourced South African communities

Doctoral Thesis


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Background: Diet-related non-communicable diseases (NCDs) pose a substantial burden in terms of financial cost, morbidity, and mortality. In South Africa there is currently a double burden of infectious diseases and NCDs. Overconsumption of sugar, refined carbohydrates, and poor-quality fats, increases the risk for developing chronic diseases. Families from poor communities are often forced to eat these harmful foods due to a lack of nutrition education, or because they cannot afford or don't know how to access healthy foods. While poverty is an important barrier to health and education for both men and women, it tends to yield a higher burden in women. There is evidence that low-carbohydrate high-fat (LCHF) diets can improve metabolic health in well-controlled clinical trials where quality food is either provided or where participants have the financial and logistical means to access the foods promoted by this diet. However, one cannot assume that the same nutritional advice will translate to residents of underserved communities, who may not understand the advice nor be able to afford or access the foods promoted by this diet. Women from these communities are often the gatekeepers to healthy food choices for their families, but they are at a particular disadvantage. Eat Better South Africa (EBSA) runs nutrition education programs to teach – predominately women – how to choose affordable healthier foods that are lower in refined carbohydrates and higher in healthy fats to prevent or manage metabolic conditions. Aims: This research aims to optimise the EBSA program for women from underresourced communities and to evaluate its effectiveness for changing dietary behaviour and improving metabolic health. The objectives were: 1) to explore women's perceptions of the EBSA program and the barriers and facilitators that they faced to change their dietary habits and adhere to the EBSA recommended diet; 2) to conduct community assessments in the under-resourced communities that EBSA planned to run programs, better address women's needs and explore their willingness to participate in a nutrition and health education program; 3) to assess the effects of the EBSA program on women's metabolic health and wellbeing through mixed-methods and to explore EBSA's team perceptions of the program, and 4) to explore health practitioners' perceptions of the health and nutritional advice recommended by EBSA. Methods: The first part of this project consisted of a qualitative study through focus group discussions (FGDs) with women from previous EBSA programs (n=18) and naïve EBSA participants (n=60). The second part of the project consisted of a mixed-method evaluation (n=32) of a pilot study on an EBSA intervention to assess health status changes. These methods included qualitative methods (in-depth individual (IDIs) interviews with both EBSA participants and EBSA team members and FGDs with the EBSA participants), and quantitative methods (diet assessment, metabolic health markers and physical activity behaviour) to assess changes before and after the pilot intervention program. The last part of this project consisted of a qualitative IDI study on health practitioners' perceptions and understanding of a LCHF diet (n=16). Thematic analysis of the qualitative data was conducted using NVivo 12 software. Descriptive and statistical analysis of the quantitative data was done using Stata 16 and Jamovi. Results: The first formative study indicated that the EBSA participants' greatest facilitators and barriers revolved around understanding the educational content and on how to implement the dietary advice. The mixed methods results of the second study, the pilot, indicated that, overall, the women experienced improvements in dietary behaviours and biomarkers related to inflammation, lipids, and glycaemic profiles. Furthermore, the participants waist circumference, weight, blood pressure, triglycerides and HbA1c were significantly reduced, and those changes were sustained six months after the EBSA intervention. Women's carbohydrate intake was significantly reduced, and their health markers improved despite a slight increase in sedentary behaviour. The qualitative results found that the major reason women enrolled in the program was because they suffered from NCDs. Most women found that the EBSA diet made them feel less hungry, more energetic and they felt that their health had improved. Most women spoke of socioeconomic challenges which made it difficult for them to follow EBSA's recommendations, such as employment status, safety issues in the community, and lack of support from relatives. Women felt that some health practitioners were not supportive of the diet, but that they became more positive after observing the related health outcomes. Quantitative results converged with qualitative results except for physical activity behaviour. EBSA's team perceptions of the program and participants' challenges matched participants' experiences. The final qualitative study indicated that health practitioners' approaches to LCHF diets seemed to be supportive but not advocating. Conclusion: Although, currently, some international food guidelines endorse LCHF diets, there is still a considerable amount of confusion and lack of knowledge regarding this diet. This study provided data on the dietary intake and health risk status of women from under-resourced South African communities, and the facilitators and challenges of a LCHF education program to change their dietary behaviour. Results suggested that most participants followed EBSA's dietary recommendations and experienced health improvements as a result. Follow up data at six months suggested that those changes could be sustainable. For people with diet-related chronic diseases, LCHF diets should be supported by experienced health care professionals who can facilitate optimal nutritional intake. This is the same for any other diet; the evidence for long-term compliance and the sustainability of carbohydrate restriction is currently not yet established. In the absence of this evidence, existing data suggest that it is a legitimate and potentially effective treatment to adopt a LCHF diet as an option for patients to manage and prevent NCDs in under-resourced communities.