Facebook chatbot to help curb SA’s high rates of obesity and stunting

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Phoenix Durban

An internet chatbot named, Ginger, is bringing about a new wave of interest in children’s eating behaviour and habits by targeting mothers and caregivers as agents of change.
Ginger, who was recently brought to life by innovative pharmaceutical firm, Pharma Dynamics, in an effort to curb SA’s high rates of obesity and stunting (as a result of under- or malnutrition) among school-aged children, has already gained a strong following of mothers intent on making a change.
Nicole Jennings, the spokesman for Pharma Dynamics said the campaign specifically targets mothers, as primary caregivers, since they influence children’s eating behaviours in a variety of ways.
“Mothers actively make food choices for the family and serve as role-models for dietary choices and patterns. Children also learn about food by observing the eating behaviours modelled by their parents. Research reveals that when children see their parents eating a healthy selection of fruit and vegetables every day, children are likely to display the same behaviour. The ‘do-as-I-do’ approach was found to be far more effective than the ‘do-as-I-say’ style of teaching children about nutrition,” she explained.
However, since a high percentage of SA mothers have to work and as a consequence, young children are routinely being fed by someone else, childcare settings should provide appropriate food to meet a child’s nutritional requirements.
Similarly, the school environment can also help to teach children about healthy dietary patterns and behaviours.
“A person’s eating habits are typically formed during childhood, therefore when healthier meal options are offered at home and school it’s likely to lead to healthier nutritional choices throughout children’s entire lifetimes,” noted Jennings.
Obesity is one of SA’s fastest-growing public health issues with almost two in ten children overweight or obese, while stunting, as a result of malnutrition or under-nutrition, also remains a problem in nearly 20 percent of two to five-year-old children in the country.
To combat both obesity and stunting in children, Ginger, is actively engaging mothers and caregivers via Facebook around planning healthy breakfasts, school lunches, snacks and suppers on a shoestring budget. These meals are all based on the more than 100 recipes from the Cooking from the Heart cookbook series of which Pharma Dynamics is the custodian.

Over the past five years, GPs and specialists have used Cooking from the Heart as a valuable resource in guiding patients at risk of chronic diseases of lifestyle, such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes on how to make healthy eating a part of healthy living, but now Pharma Dynamics has made it even easier for mothers and caregivers to use the resource as it was intended by way of the chatbot.
Several mothers explain how the Cooking from the Heart chatbot has made healthy cooking a breeze.  Roxanne Potgieter, mother of a toddler and new born, explained that she’s always at a loss as to what do with all the leftovers, but that planning meals that give ‘good-for-you’ leftovers make it easier with Ginger’s help.
Bianca van der Westhuizen, mother of a one-year-old son, said she has a penchant for salt and never imagined not salting her food, until she crossed paths with Ginger who has given her plenty of practical ‘swap it’ tips, such as replacing salt with fresh herbs and spices or lemon for flavour.
“I can now prepare tasty, salt-free meals not only for my young one, but for the whole family,” she explained.  Riana Venter, grandmother and guardian of three boys, said Ginger takes the thinking out of cooking.
“I’ve often stood in the grocery isle agonising over what I’m going to make for supper during the week, but now Ginger does the thinking for me. She provides me with a weekly shopping list and advises on how to adapt meals based on my family’s individual needs.”
Jennings said often mothers just don’t know where to start when it comes to healthy cooking.  Someone’s idea of a healthy meal might be completely different to another’s, but Ginger is there to guide mothers.
Each meal that she’ll recommend has been tested and approved by a number of nutritionists from the Heart and Stroke Foundation of SA and carry’s the organisation’s stamp of approval.
Ginger can be thought of as your very own personal chef and will help mothers and caregivers throughout the country to develop confidence in their ability to prepare healthy meals, while ensuring minimal wastage.
Heleen Meyer, a well-known healthy food consultant and author of a string of healthy eating recipe books, including the Cooking from the Heart series, can vouch for the great tasting recipes.
“Many people think of healthy eating as boring and use this as an excuse to choose less healthy options instead. Eating right may require some self-control, but it’s about eating naturally derived food that is balanced, includes variety, is tasty and most importantly, fuels the body to give you the strength you need to carry out your daily activities,” she explained.
In the wake of ‘back-to-school’ season, Meyer has teamed up with Pharma Dynamics again to create a strong narrative around revamping school lunch boxes. She advocates that school lunches should set a healthy example.
“Children generally become activists for healthy eating when they learn about and experience healthy eating at home. However, in homes where learners don’t have access to healthy foods, schools should be a place where they can count on eating healthily since many of them may be eating the majority of their calories at school,” she said.
“Despite government’s efforts, there is still plenty of unhealthy food available at tuck shops. It’s rare that you will find fruit and vegetables occupying half of the school tuck shop, which should be encouraged. It’s not that children refuse to eat healthily, it just boils down to how it is presented and the choices that parents allow both at school and at home,” Meyer concluded.

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