Does Traditional and Indigenous Food Make People Fat?


Do they really contribute to our overweight society?  Early this week on TalkSA (SABC2), traditional food was the topic and one of the questions I was asked during the interview was my opinion on the negative connotations associated with indigenous food.  It is perceived as fattening.  This post is my elaborate answer to that question….. 

I love food.  Not only because it gives us satiety, energy and all the nutrients needed by our bodies.  The varying textures, flavours and colours make it interesting.   Essentially, I love to eat.  Luckily, I’ve always been skinny.  My grandmother even gave me the nickname “Bhityos” which means skinny one.   I gradually picked up weight as soon as I started working.  I mean can you blame me? I work with food….

Skinny Thuli (on the right) back in 2007
Skinny Thuli (on the right) back in 2007


My weight gain started accelerating back in 2011.  I picked up a monstrous 14kg.  Not just from eating.  But also from partying which included eating late at night (a McDonald’s drive thru opens 24hrs hey), big portion sizes, binge drinking and just not exercising.   As soon as I really focused on the blog I came to realise the connotations associated with “indigenous” or “township” food.  It’s perceived as fattening.  My one colleague was introducing me to people one time and in his introduction he said “Thuli loves food.  She also blogs …” That felt like a stab at my confidence but it was true I do love food.  However, the fact that I was heavy at that time made me feel like people were being mean when they said I love food.

I also chose to be an indigenous food blogger and that means I have readers following my blog, people who try out my recipes and follow my suggestions.  Ja hey, they say with great power comes great responsibility.  If I was this size 40 indigenous food blogger then people would say “vele, its true the food is fattening.  Just look at Thuli” I couldn’t live with that.   If I was to be this young person encouraging other young people to consume indigenous dishes then I needed to also prove to them that it is not fattening.  Or if I found it was indeed fattening then come up with ways of changing that.   I had to set an example….`

Okay, back in 2010 I weighed 62kg; in 2011 I weighed 76kg making it a total weight gain of 14kg!  I had a round face, big cheeks and my Chinese eyes.  I was not used to this heavy body.  Besides, I’m not a girly girl in that I don’t like shopping for clothes.  I always shop from my sisters’ wardrobes and being 14kg heavier meant I could no longer do that and I was forced to go retail shopping for bigger sizes.   Trust me, shopping for a size 38 and 40 is not a pleasant experience especially when you are not used to it.  Something needed to change!  I had to change my bad habits, exercise and adopt a new lifestyle.  Period!

Chubby Thuli (on the left) in 2011
Chubby Thuli (on the left) in 2011


These are the areas where I found fault in my then lifestyle:

  • Eating late at night – You ever notice when you are out clubbing you end up feeling hungry in the middle of the night?  You end up finding yourself looking for the closest place selling food at that time.  If you are lucky and there’s a hot dog trailer you end up joining the long queue!  This is usually after several drinks hey…think of all that energy going into your body!  Black people!  This also means you do not have your supper while watching Generations and then go to bed at 9 o’clock!  Have your suppers at least two hours before going to bed.  This gives the body a chance to digest the food.
  • Binge drinking – Excess alcohol is stored as fat.  Plain and simple.  Qha qwaba!
  • Drinking cool/fizzy drinks whenever one is thirsty instead of drinking water – Lots of people do this without even realising it.  They drink a cool drink or juice whenever they are thirsty without even realising the calories they are putting into their bodies.  Cut it out and drink water instead!  The body also needs this water for other functions such as regulating our body temperature, transportation of nutrients and even the softening up of your stools.  Ever notice that you get constipated when not drinking enough water?
  • Big portion sizes – A friend of mine was telling me that she went to Reuben’s restaurant in Franshoek.  She says she saw the portions on the plates and immediately she thought “I am heading straight to KFC after this”.   After having her three portions, a starter, main and dessert, she was so full.  Now she was asking me “what is it that they put into their food because the portions are small but the food is filling?”  I guess Chef Reuben will have to answer that one.  Haha!  However, we should all strive for portion control and eat slowly.  Chewing our food.  It takes about 20 minutes for the brain to register that one is a full.  So now if you eat quickly by the time the brain registers you are full chances are you’ve already consumed more than necessary.  That means you’ve put excess calories into your body.  Practice chewing your food properly and eat slowly.  If cooking at home, try to enjoy a variety of food on a sitting i.e. have a portion controlled starter, main and dessert.  You get different nutrients from different foods.  Having variety will increase the chances of getting most nutrients.
  • Lack of  exercising – Prevention of weight gain is like this….energy input must be equivalent to your energy output.   That means, as you eat (putting in energy into your body) you also need to do activities that will burn that energy.  Remember our grandparents were seldom overweight?  Why was that? They worked.  They walked.  Plus, this is my favourite part – they consumed these indigenous dishes.  We are a spoiled generation.  We have cars.  I mean if I want to go buy something let’s say a dishwashing liquid, I get into my car, drive to the nearest retail store, get back into my car and drive back home.  You see?  We do not walk.  Therefore we are left with the option to exercise.  A lot of people will make excuses such as “I can’t afford gym”.  Well, me too.  I also cannot afford gym.   However, that doesn’t mean I can’t exercise so I jog.   Participate in running events.  Buy a rope  (It is the cheapest exercise equipment I know and it works like a charm …but you need discipline).  Try jogging two or three times a week (that’s what I do).

After making all these necessary changes to my diet and lifestyle I now weigh 63kg.  Yes, I’ve lost 13kg in total and I’ve been maintaining it since early 2012.  The one kilo just refuses to go away but I’m not worried.

It is all our responsibility as South Africans to change this perception.  I still maintain that indigenous and traditional foods are not fattening and I will continue to prove it by living by example.   I love my pap, samp & beans and meat!  But that doesn’t mean I have to be overweight or unhealthy.  Hell no!  Please also do this, look at the areas that could be the cause of weight gain in your life and try to change them.  If I could do it, so can YOU!

About Author


Thuli Gogela is a Food Technologist with 8 years of experience developing products in food manufacturing. She is dedicated to discovering wholesome traditional dishes and recipes with a distinctive taste from different parts of the African continent. Thuli is well known for her food blog, Mzansi Style Cuisine which was established in 2010. She saw a gap in the traditional food market that people were hungry for. From there, it didn’t take long to build her brand. In 2013, she started writing a recipe column for the Cape Times for and has collaborated with some of the biggest brands in South Africa namely, Knorr, Nedeburg Wines, First Choice and Spekko rice. Not only does Thuli feature traditional African dishes, she’s also open to developing recipes, food consultations and brand collaborations.

Comments ( 6 )

  • I totally agree, Thuli – indigenous food or traditional food from any culture isn’t fattening in itself, it’s the way you eat and how much you eat. Fast food is the real bad guy.

  • Flee

    Very interesting article Thuli… Really agree with the concept that its how we eat and not what. One thing I learned with portion control, is to use smaller plates, that way when you dish the plate looks full but you are actually dishing less, mentally you think you will never finish it and odds are you wont lol….

  • Boikhtuso

    Just the inspiration that i needed, I have almost lost 10kg in 3 months just by reducing portions, 2litres of water daily and not eating bread. I used to eat whatever i could whenever,however now I am aware of what I am putting into my body. Its true when they say “you are what you eat”.

    • Hi ladies,

      Thanks for your comments! I believe that too much of anything is just bad for our bodies!
      Kit – I eat everything but moderation is key. But it becomes a problem when you just living off take aways. I also blamed business travel for my weight gain. I was away a lot in 2011 and lived on hotel / restaurant food and take aways.
      Flee – the smaller plate concept works. Another one that works is to leave food on your plate. Its difficult at first but it get better once your body is used to eating smaller portions.
      Boikhutso – Well done! Thats amazing! Are you exercising as well? I agree with you on making these changes a part of our lifestyle. We need to know what goes into our bodies and also (this is important) read labels. Look at the nutritional information when buying products and be an informed consumer! Keep it up!

  • ncumisa

    thank you Thuli , I’ve learned a lot from reading your story.

    keep it up dear!

    • You are most welcome Ncumisa! Thanks for visiting.

      xx Thuli

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