Blue Zone diets and plant-based nutrition prescribed for South African medical curricula

12 Oct 2023 — The Physicians Association for Nutrition (PAN) South Africa recently surveyed undergraduate medical and dietetic students on social media about their knowledge of plant-based nutrition to understand how to incorporate related information into their education. The move comes in light of a global interest in Blue Zone diets popularized by the Netflix series “Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones”.

Nutrition Insight caught up with the presenter of the series, Dan Buettner, last month to find out more about the healthy living secrets he has discovered. 

“Many of today’s chronic diseases can be prevented, managed and reversed by lifestyle medicine approaches that emphasize the importance of nutrition and plant-forward diets. As a result, it is crucial that doctors graduate with a comprehensive understanding of the most effective treatment options for patients,” Dr. Nanine Wyma, managing director at PAN South Africa, tells Nutrition Insight.

“Future healthcare professionals should be able to map out the health benefits of plant-based diets, adequately manage patients and provide them with educational resources. Furthermore, doctors should have the skills to support healthy individuals who want to eat a plant-based diet for environmental or ethical reasons.”

Survey identifies education gap
The survey gathered insights from 122 medical students and 49 dietetic students from health science faculties nationwide. It established a gap in education on plant-based nutrition for health science students.

About 74% of the medical students who responded feel they need more information about nutrition and 67% of dietetic students feel they need more information about plant-based nutrition.

When dietetic students were asked, “How much time is spent teaching you about plant-based nutrition?” most respondents replied fewer than five lectures, to none at all.
Noodles and vegetablesPAN University South Africa aims to update the curricula for medical students to include scientific evidence on the benefits of plant-based diets.

Social media, instead of the lecture hall, was identified as a primary source of information on plant-based nutrition.

A positive finding was that students understand that plant-based nutrition can be used to manage noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) such as diabetes and heart disease and 88% know that animal-based food systems drive zoonotic disease emergence and pandemics.

Fruits and vegetables are key
PAN University aims to integrate lifestyle medicine into its educational offering for healthcare and medical students by sponsoring lectures from the South African Lifestyle Medicine Association throughout the academic year.

PAN University students are given access to regular plant-based food donations for educational and social events and an opportunity to apply for mini-grants to fund the catering of plant-based food at larger university events. 

In line with this, ProVeg South Africa offers a free 30-day Veggie Challenge for those who are interested in eating more plant-based foods. With more than 500,000 participants in the online community, newcomers receive all the tips, recipes, meal plans, educational resources and support they need to explore the lifestyle.

“Switching to a more plant-based diet isn’t as difficult as people might think. Cutting back on meat and opting for plant-based alternatives is easier than ever with all of the products available in retail today,” Wikus Engelbrecht, communications manager, ProVeg South Africa, tells Nutrition Insight.

“Lifestyle diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and various forms of cancer have become the leading causes of death globally. Adopting a healthy plant-based diet helps significantly reduce one’s risk for these diseases and may in some cases help reverse the diagnosis.” 

The plant-based advocacy group emphasizes that transitioning to plant-based eating patterns should reduce personal healthcare costs and dependence on costly prescription medications linked to preventable illnesses. 

Getting on with proactive learning
In a move to extend its reach across South Africa, PAN University has engaged with more than 200 student members from Stellenbosch University, the University of Cape Town and the University of Pretoria.

“We aim to empower a global community of health professionals who share information and support each other in managing patients with plant-forward approaches. With PAN University, South African health science students are joining a network of medical students from over twenty campuses across five countries,” explains Wyma.Food sharingProVeg offers helpful programs to help people embrace more plant-based eating for improved health. 

Soon after the Netflix documentary premiered, each campus hosted a film screening. The documentary crew is touring the five main blue zones in Nicoya, Costa Rica; Okinawa, Japan; Loma Linda, US; Ogliastra, Sardinia and Ikaria, Greece. The series explores the common links between the lifestyles of each region which shows that these populations consume about 90% plant-based foods.

Combating noncommunicable diseases
According to data from Statistics South Africa, men and women from the region have an average life expectancy between 59 and 65 years, respectively. Chronic noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) or lifestyle-related diseases such as cardiovascular diseases, stroke, type 2 diabetes, chronic lung disease, mental illness and cancer are the leading cause of death among South Africans. 

Engelbrecht underscores: “We emphasize promoting the health and environmental benefits of plant-based diets in general, and plant-based meat analog products available on the market today, in particular, is an easy segue into making the transition.” 

“ProVeg believes that this lifestyle offers numerous health benefits in the prevention and treatment of lifestyle diseases. It has a positive effect on the environment by helping preserve biodiversity and mitigate the effects of climate change. Plant-based diets help build a more equitable food system that can minimize or even eliminate famines due to the demand for plant-based commodities and land use, already committed to animal agriculture.” 

NCDs disproportionately impact poorer populations, with over three-quarters of deaths occurring in lower-middle-income countries like South Africa. Unhealthy diets are a significant driver of chronic diseases. According to the Global Burden of Disease study, improving diet quality can prevent one in five deaths worldwide.

To help kickstart a plant-based diet, ProVeg recommends its Green Mondays campaign to follow a flexitarian dietary pattern of eating plant-based during the working week, also known as the ‘5-2 Rule’ or signing up for their 30-day Veggie Challenge.

By Inga de Jong

This feature is provided by Food Ingredients First’s sister website, Nutrition Insight.

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