Africa faces up to obesity epidemic

Some parts of Africa are best known for charity appeals to combat famine, but the continent is now facing the opposite problem: an obesity epidemic.

“In terms of Africa, obesity is a growing problem. Some countries are really experiencing high levels,” said Shane Norris, head of the new African Centre for Obesity Prevention, which launched in Johannesburg on Tuesday.

Although statistics are scarce, the World Health Organisation estimates that 12.7% of African children will be overweight or obese by 2020, compared with 8.5% in 2010. Obesity is linked to increased risk of heart disease, type-2 diabetes, high blood pressure and other chronic conditions.

Norris argued that unless the issue was addressed soon, obesity levels on the continent would become as high as those in Europe and North America – an unintended side-effect of Africa’s economic growth.

“Some countries are already experiencing quite high levels of obesity, others aren’t,” he said. “[But] the trend is that more and more African countries, as they economically develop, will face obesity-related challenges.

“We can’t stop economic growth and we wouldn’t want to, but how can we put other things in place to counter the potential ill-health effects of the economic development?”

South Africa, the continent’s most developed country, is leading the trend. Last year, local papers branded it “the fattest nation in sub-Saharan Africa” after figures showed that 26.8% of the 55 million-strong population were obese, costing the government R23 billion (£1bn) in prevention campaigns and combating obesity-related illnesses.

Moji Musa, a researcher at the University of the Witwatersrand, said South Africa’s obesity problems could be traced to a change in diet from traditional, nutrient-rich foods such as maize meal and vegetables to dense, high-calorie fast food staples such as fried chicken and chips. Increased prosperity has made such foods accessible to more of the population.

Despite its impact on health, obesity is not considered a health priority for communities affected, who are more concerned with infectious diseases such as HIV and Aids and tuberculosis, Musa’s research shows. Cultural factors play a role, too: in many societies, weight gain is viewed as a sign of affluence or happiness.

“Coming from Nigeria specifically, I am very conversant with that sort of attitude where bigger is better,” Musa said. “If you do put on a bit of fat you are seen as being comfortable. But if you start losing weight after having been a robust individual, it’s like a signal that’s something’s wrong. Maybe she’s sick, maybe she’s depressed, maybe her husband’s left her. It all boils down to changing the cultural mindset.”

Obesity in Africa disproportionately affects women, and researchers have yet to fully understand why. Initial studies suggest it may have something to do with different levels of physical activity, or may be related to hormone levels.

The obesity prevention centre is based in Soweto’s Chris Hani Baragwanath hospital, the third largest in the world, and aims to prevent the obesity crisis getting even worse.

“South Africa is already far along this obesity trajectory, with many other African countries following along that course,” Norris said. “What we can learn from South Africa can be relayed into preventative measures for other African countries.” – Guardian

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