The nutrition and health transition in the North West Province of South Africa: a review of the THUSA (Transition and Health during Urbanisation of South Africans) study

Public Health Nutr. 2005 Aug;8(5):480-90. doi: 10.1079/phn2005784.


Objective: To describe how urbanisation influences the nutrition and health transition in South Africa by using data from the THUSA (Transition and Health during Urbanisation of South Africans) study.

Design: The THUSA study was a cross-sectional, comparative, population-based survey.

Setting: The North West Province of South Africa.

Subjects: In total, 1854 apparently healthy volunteers, men and women aged 15 years and older, from 37 randomly selected sites. Pregnant and lactating women, those with diagnosed chronic diseases and taking medication, with acute infections or inebriated were excluded but screened for hypertension and diabetes mellitus. Subjects were stratified into five groups representing different levels of urbanisation in rural and urban areas: namely, deep rural, farms, squatter camps, townships and towns/cities. OUTCOME MEASURES AND METHODS: Socio-economic and education profiles, dietary patterns, nutrient intakes, anthropometric and biochemical nutrition status, physical and mental health indicators, and risk factors for non-communicable diseases (NCDs) were measured using questionnaires developed or adapted and validated for this population, as well as appropriate, standardised methods for the biochemical analyses of biological samples.

Results: Subjects from the rural groups had lower household incomes, less formal education, were shorter and had lower body mass indices than those in the urban groups. Urban subjects consumed less maize porridge but more fruits, vegetables, animal-derived foods and fats and oils than rural subjects. Comparing women from rural group 1 with the urban group 5, the following shifts in nutrient intakes were observed: % energy from carbohydrates, 67.4 to 57.3; from fats, 23.6 to 31.8; from protein, 11.4 to 13.4 (with an increase in animal protein from 22.2 to 42.6 g day(-1)); dietary fibre, 15.8 to 17.7 g day(-1); calcium, 348 to 512 mg day(-1); iron from 8.4 to 10.4 mg day(-1); vitamin A from 573 to 1246 mug retinol equivalents day(-1); and ascorbic acid from 30 to 83 mg day(-1). Serum total cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein cholesterol and plasma fibrinogen increased significantly across groups; systolic blood pressure >140 mmHg was observed in 10.4-34.8% of subjects in different groups and diabetes mellitus in 0.8-6.0% of subjects. Women in groups 1 to 5 had overweight plus obesity rates of 48, 53, 47, 61 and 61%, showing an increase with urbanisation. Subjects from group 2 (farm dwellers) showed the highest scores of psychopathology and the lowest scores of psychological well-being. The same subjects consistently showed the lowest nutrition status.

Conclusions: Urbanisation of Africans in the North West Province is accompanied by an improvement in micronutrient intakes and status, but also by increases in overweight, obesity and several risk factors for NCDs. It is recommended that intervention programmes to promote nutritional health should aim to improve micronutrient status further without leading to obesity. The role of psychological strengths in preventing the adverse effects of urbanisation on health needs to be examined in more detail.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Body Mass Index
  • Chronic Disease
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Diet / trends*
  • Dietary Fats / administration & dosage
  • Educational Status
  • Feeding Behavior
  • Female
  • HIV Infections / complications
  • HIV Infections / epidemiology
  • Health Status Indicators
  • Health Surveys
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Micronutrients / administration & dosage
  • Nutritional Status*
  • Obesity / epidemiology*
  • Obesity / etiology
  • Socioeconomic Factors
  • South Africa
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Urbanization*


  • Dietary Fats
  • Micronutrients