Your background shouldn’t define your future

Zandile Mchiza

“Our history, and that of many countries abroad, is permeated with examples of how a curriculum has had a positive or negative influence on the youth and their way of thinking.”

Bursaries, scholarships, grants and prizes

DST/NRF Master internship – based at the MRC’s ESSM Unit

DST/NRF PhD internship – based at the MRC

DST/NRF Postdoctoral research fellowship – based at The Human Sciences Research Council

Living off the fat of the land

The food black people are eating now is killing them – it is high in fat and sugar content and is devoid of protein and fibre, according to Dr Zandile Mchiza.

“The black man’s diet used to be good – we ground raw corn with a rock which meant we didn’t lose the roughage and fibre,” Zandile, who is a Senior Research Specialist at the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) of South Africa, said.

Nowadays, super refined pap is served with fatty food like boerewors and chicken with the skin still on it. Vegetables are a rare occurrence on the plate and if salad is served it is smothered in unhealthy mayonnaise or salad dressing.

On the road to a life of illness

This type of diet could lead to various diseases, including diabetes. Diabetes starts with insulin resistance which is fuelled by too much refined carbs and sugar.

If you eat this every day, the sugar goes straight into the blood, the body then needs insulin, which the pancreas produces to balance out the excess sugar. Pretty soon, the pancreas is working the whole time until it becomes tired and insulin stores are depleted or altered in some way.

“Your body would therefore need to become insulin resistant to regulate the need for it. Once you have insulin resistance you are on the road to a life of illness,” she said.

Insulin resistance can be reversed in its early stages by altering the diet and including physical exercise as part of a lifestyle. If it is not reversed though, you end up with diabetes. Once diabetic, you become prone to several other chronic and or life-threatening diseases, like high blood pressure.

According to the research that Zandile has done, more and more people are dying from diabetes and related illnesses. Alarmingly, at younger ages too. The single most influencing factor is the type of diet consumed. Second to this is lack of physical activity.

“My advice to people is to have a varied diet. Eat different types of food each day, include vegetables, fruit, complex carbohydrates, stay away from processed and refined foods, and limit sugar to no more than five teaspoons a day.”

Zandile, who initially wanted to be a doctor, grew up in very difficult circumstances. Born in Durban, her family was separated from her father, a policeman, when he was deported back to the Eastern Cape. That was during the 70s when the pass law system was still in force, in apartheid South Africa. They later relocated to King Williamstown when her father was transferred.

“We were Zulus living amongst Xhosas. We were treated as foreigners, not fellow South Africans,” Zandile recalls.

Her parents kept her and her siblings indoors. They had to quickly learn how to read, write and speak Xhosa just to get by.

“I was very unhappy. I channeled all my anger into books and that is where I began to excel at school.”

It was also at this time that she became interested in medicine. “We had an excellent family doctor who inspired me to become a doctor. He would let me touch his stethoscope and pretend that I was a doctor.”

“My brothers and sisters used to call me “doctor” even at a very early age,” she laughed.

After matriculating Zandile wanted to enrol at a university to study medicine. Fort Hare, her local university, did not offer medicine so she had to go to Cape Town. During the eighties one had to enrol in pre-med courses before studying medicine. Zandile, however, applied too late and instead of wasting another year she enrolled at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) for a course in nutrition and dietetics.

During her third year she enquired about enrolling at the medical faculty of the University of Cape Town (UCT). They informed her that she would be accepted and credited for some of the coursework she had done during her degree.

However, Zandile was struggling financially as it was difficult for her and her parents to pay for the tuition fees, as well as the accommodation and living expenses. As a result the lure of finding a job as a dietician became great.

Fortune smiled down on her though. “I presented a short thesis for my honours and Shelly Meltzer from the Sports Science Institute liked what she heard.”

Shelly offered Zandile a position at her private practice and made an arrangement with Prof Vicki Lambert for Zandile to pursue her Masters through the University of Cape Town’s Exercise Science and Sports Medicine (ESSM) Unit, of the Human Biology Department. Vicki also secured her an internship, which was funded by the National Research Foundation of South Africa at the Medical Research Council (MRC) Chronic Diseases of Lifestyles Unit.

“I was able to do my Masters and PhD as well as earn money through that fortuitous arrangement.”

Towards the end of her Masters course, Zandile won the grand prize of R100 000 in the Women in Science Awards

She used the money to travel to Australia to study obesity at Deaken University in Geelong and Monash University in Monash and obtained her Specialty in Obesity Management in 2007.

“I used what I learnt over there to strengthen my PhD thesis, which looked at the factors contributing to black South African women’s obesity.”

Her findings were different to the accepted thought of the day, which put most of these factors down to genetics and what you eat.

“Why are black woman more obese than their white counterparts but black men less so than their white counterparts, especially since the black woman are more likely to eat the same food as the black men?”

These were a few of the questions she wanted answers to. She compared obese mothers with their obese daughters, and found that body image played a huge role. African woman are seen to be more healthy and desirable if they are fat.

Many black woman would binge eat because they came from low-income economic groups. When food was available they would eat as much as possible.

“I am using that information to write a policy brief to influence policies so that the government can advocate a normal-sized weight status and we can have a healthier society.”

Zandile likes to give back to society wherever she can. She is involved with the NRF in a project that provides science writing skills, career and funding advice to postgraduates.

“I have realised that there are things that hinder graduates from doing postgraduate study. Chief villain being lack of money.”

“The irony is that there is a lot of funding available for kids from previously disadvantaged areas to study, much of which is unused. I like to show students where to go to access these funds.”