Research shows that South Africans have seen a sharp increase in anxiety, stress and weight gain during the pandemic. But the good news is that just one simple dietary change could make a meaningful difference to both your waistline and mental health: eating pork.

According to a 2021 national survey by pharmaceutical firm Pharma Dynamics, as many as 56% of South Africans reported higher levels of psychological and emotional distress than before the pandemic. Another 65% admitted to neglecting their health, while a staggering 81% had turned to unhealthy food to cope with stress. 

“In addition to the emotional distress and anxiety generated by COVID-19 itself, especially for those who sadly lost loved ones over the past two years, the pandemic has introduced a number of other stressors to our lives such as increased financial pressure and isolation. It’s little wonder then that so many people have reported gaining weight or experiencing feelings of depression,” notes Melindi Wyma, professional food scientist and Group Technical Manager of Eskort.

“But with many of us embarking on a new diet for the new year, it’s also important to consider the impacts of your diet on your mental health as well as your body. Opting for nutrient-dense foods is crucial to both our physical and our mental well-being, quite literally fuelling our bodies and our minds.”

Scientific studies have proven, for instance, that as much as 20% of our daily calories are consumed by our brains, influencing our mental performance as well as our mood. 

Wyma emphasises, however, that improving your overall health not only means increasing your focus on the traditional nutrient-dense diet staples of fruit and vegetables, but that meat also has a vital role to play on our plates. 

“It’s a common mistake to vilify meat as part of new diet regimes. In particular, pork has many notable benefits for weight loss in addition to providing a significant source of nutrients for enhancing mental well-being.” 

Weight-loss benefits

While chicken breasts are a common theme in many diets, pork is likewise high in protein. This protein works to actively reduce your appetite and increase your feeling of satiation – important advantages for successful weight management programmes, explains Wyma. 

“Pork also provides a complete protein, which means that it provides all nine essential amino acids. These help to boost muscle growth and, in turn, burn fat more quickly through changing your body’s overall composition,” she says. 

“By eating high-quality lean cuts such as pork tenderloin, pork loin chops or sirloin roasts, you will also limit your quantity of saturated fats for a more heart-healthy option. Lean cuts of pork are actually comparable to chicken, which is why pork is often called the other white meat.”

A clinical study published by Nutrients, for example, found that by increasing their intake of pork by 10-fold through substituting other meats in their diets, volunteers saw a significant improvement in their weight, Body Mass Index (BMI), waist circumference, body fat percentage, fat mass and abdominal fat.

“Despite the many myths that persist about pork, it can play a starring role in healthy, balanced diets, offering a tasty option to spice up your meals,” adds Wyma. 

Boost for mental well-being  

On top of its weight-loss benefits when included as part of a weight-loss eating plan, pork is also a significant source of B vitamins for boosting mental performance and well-being. 

For example, a 170g pork chop contains as much as 96% of your recommended daily allowance (RDA) of vitamin B1 or thiamin, also known as the “morale vitamin”. Notably, this vitamin helps your body to transform food and carbohydrates into energy, and has also been shown to enhance and stabilise mood, preventing anxiety and depression. Finally, this vitamin has been shown to play an important role in improving concentration and memory.  

“Pork further provides a source of vitamin B12 and iron, which assist your body in producing serotonin or the hormone responsible for mood and happiness. Additionally, pork is also source of selenium, which research has shown is associated with lower prevalence rates of depression,” concludes Wyma.

“Overall, pork is a rich source of high-quality protein for the body and the mind. It should be considered the natural protein of choice for anyone looking to meet their healthy eating goals, as well as to improve their health and well-being in the year ahead.”