As a child, Lerato Radebe’s dream was to bring babies into the world one day. However, her path took a different turn when she discovered dietetics. Today, this dietitian can’t see herself doing anything else.
When Radebe (38) from Johannesburg graduated from high school in 2002, she was studying medicine at the University of Pretoria. She says that as a child, she was fascinated by childbirth and wanted to become a midwife. When she talked about it, she was told she needed to study medicine so she could earn more money as a gynaecologist and deliver babies.
“Like most kids, I was let down by career counselling, and I left high school determined to go to medical school. I wanted to be a midwife, but I was told midwives do not make money, so I’d better become an OB/GYN.”
Radebe says things were not as rosy as she had imagined when she entered the university.
“I went to university, and after a while I realised that this career path is not for me, I am not a doctor; I am too sensitive, I am too empathetic… The course, the way it’s designed, has a kind of desensitisation component.”
The course has a way of “desensitising” one’s mind, Radebe says. She believes the process will change the core and essence of who she is as a person.
“I am my sensitivity, I am my empathy, and I do not want that part of me to be removed.”
As a result, she went home and told her parents that medicine was not her cup of tea.
Although she was not sure what she wanted to do, she knew she definitely wanted to go to be in the medical space.
“I sent applications to all the other elite healthcare departments. So, I applied to occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech therapy, occupational therapy and radiology to get into their programmes, including dietetics.”
‘Dietetics chose me’
Radebe says that a week later, the head of the nutrition department was the first to respond. That’s how she realised that dietetics had chosen her.
In the first module of the dietetics programme, Radebe felt at home, she felt like that this is who she is, that everything makes her, her was in that module.
“From very early on in my life I knew I loved food. I am an only girl amongst three boys and the biggest thing we used to fight about was food. Who ate my leftovers? I get to eat the last apple in the fridge.”
Learning about every aspect of nutrition won Radebe’s heart. She says that she would get excited in class when she was being taught about the clinical aspects of treating a hospital patient with a particular disease or condition, because it all represents her.
After all these exciting and fulfilling years, Radebe completed her honours in 2006. She then worked in a variety of settings, including hospitals, training centres, NPOs and clinics.
In 2010, she became a spokesperson for the Association of Dietetics of South Africa, which led her to do a lot of communications work, from writing articles, scripting, TV and radio. In 2016, she hosted her own show, TV Food Police, which aired on Good Life Network and recently on DSTV.
Nutrition is not a quick fix
Radebe says that it takes time to understand the values of nutrition, to recognise which foods are good and which are bad, which cause diseases, and which can control and cure them.
She says people should not focus on quick fixes because that would do more harm than good.
“If we tell someone not to eat high-fat foods, they’ll say they can eat di kota tse, 10 a week and still not gain weight, not knowing they can get away with it while they are young. But the problem with diet is that the problems you face do not hit you at the time you are behaving badly, they hit you five, 10, or even 15 years later, and at that point there’s nothing you can do to reverse your behaviour.”
She explains that the large portions of pizzas, donuts, fizzy drinks and alcohol people consume in their teens can haunt them at a later stage.
Radebe has grown beyond the confines of SA and joined the Graca Machel Trust, where she is a programme officer for nutrition. She supports countries in the SADC region in developing school nutrition programmes as a means to combat malnutrition and hunger on the continent.