Did you know that apartheid can be linked to eating disorders? One such eating disorder is called Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder. 

Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) is an eating disorder where people either avoid or restrict the amount they eat of certain foods. It can lead to persistent failure to meet one’s nutritional needs and is more common in children and young adolescents. However, it can occur in late adolescence and adulthood. It is often associated with other psychiatric comorbidities, including autism, ADHD, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder. 

People who struggle with ARFID do not enjoy food but eat to sustain their lives. The idea of eating for them feels like a nuisance. They can starve themselves for long periods, not because they have body image issues like anorexia or are trying to maintain a certain weight, but because they don’t enjoy food. The same way we hate doing dishes and only do them because we have to, is how people who struggle with ARFID feel about food and eating; it feels like a chore. In some extreme cases, some people tolerate hunger rather than being full because eating turns them off. 

While doctors cannot directly pinpoint the exact cause, they have linked it to trauma. There are numerous studies where experts suggest that psychological and emotional problems are major contributing factors to eating disorders. 

It goes without saying that Apartheid left a psychological and emotional impact on many South Africans, including the generation born in a post-Apartheid world. According to Food By Country, during Apartheid, from 1948 to 1994, the white population was the main priority of government policy. There were little food-resources provided to the broader non-white population. This means that this population was at the bottom of the food chain, with low access to nutrient-dense food. 

Given that they were in survival mode, they created staple dishes using only the food groups they could access. Mostly, these were a mix of carbohydrates, with little protein and healthy fats. Dishes like isidovela (rice and potato dish), umphokoqo (krummel pap), and umngqusho (samp and beans) became the staples. 

A young woman, who struggles with the disorder and wishes to remain anonymous, shares how growing up eating only these staple dishes affected her eating habits and tolerance of food. 

“Growing up at home we only ever ate mealie meal-heavy dishes, homemade porridge in the morning, stiff pap in the afternoon and maybe umphokoqo at night. It was the same every day, with little to no veggies and meat only here and there. We couldn’t afford much, but also it’s not like we knew enough to think about healthy food and eating.”

Anonymous also shares how today she still cannot help but eat the same kinds of foods for comfort and to get by, “I struggle to have set times to eat breakfast, lunch and supper. I go long periods of time without eating, I thought I was a picky eater but meeting different people and seeing their eating habits I realised I have a problem. Growing up with little food to eat made me feel like I should never put importance on it because it was almost never there. Now when I can afford to buy food, I just don’t have the eagerness to do it and only eat the same familiar food I would have growing up.”

In a country like South Africa, the historical context of trauma and access cannot be separated from food experiences and eating disorders. When food is expensive, most South Africans live paycheque to paycheque with little to no room to explore healthier alternatives. There’s no time to challenge your palette with different types of food when the priority is to make it through the next day without starving to death. Even for many middle-class people of colour there’s still a lot of education needed to address nutrition-based eating. As a result of Apartheid, unhealthy eating habits, lack of proper nutrition and food miseducation have passed from one generation to the next. 

Therefore, we cannot push the narrative of a healthy lifestyle without acknowledging how the legacy of Apartheid still affects Black and people of colour almost 30 years later. 

Tell us: How can we promote healthy eating in a way that includes black/people of colour in the conversation?