S.Africans losing the war against obesity - CNBC Africa

S.Africans losing the war against obesity

Southern Africa

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Overweight individual measuring their waist.

“South Africa in general is experiencing what is called the quadruple burden of disease. We have a high burden of infectious diseases, HIV and TB, which mainly affect rural people. We also have the chronic diseases that are hitting people like cardiovascular [disease], hypertension, and diabetes,” Indira Govender from the Rural Doctors Association told ABN Digital.

According to a report by the South African Medical Research Council (MRC), the overall prevalence of overweight and obese individuals in South Africa has significantly increased over the years, with more than 29 per cent of men and 56 per cent of women being classified as overweight or obese.

“It is very much diet and lifestyle related. In general, people’s diets are not great. There’s issues of basically having limited access to healthy food, there’s the problem of salt, preservatives and fast food that is available all over,” Govender explained.

“Then there’s the issue of exercise and smoking as well, and alcohol consumption.”

The MRC report, which surveyed 13 African countries, indicated that almost all women tended to be closer to becoming overweight and obese than men.

This is calculated using the Body Mass Index (BMI), where one’s weight and height are included. An individual with a BMI of below 18.5 is underweight, and a BMI of 18.5 to 24.9 is of normal weight.

A BMI of 25 and above is overweight, and of 30 and above is obese.

The mean BMI of Ethiopian men between the ages of 15 to 29 was at 17.5, and the mean BMI for women of the same age was calculated at 18.9. A mean BMI of 18.3 to 18.6 was recorded for males and females between the ages of 30 to 44.

In South Africa, the mean BMI of men between the ages of 15 to 29 was recorded at 21.5, and women in the same age group at 24.4. The mean BMI of males aged between 30 to 44 was recorded at 24.4, and females of the same age was recorded at 28.5.

The fact that a BMI of above 24 has been recorded among South African women between the ages of 30 to 44 is a significant concern, as it is an indicator of an unhealthy diet at a relatively young age.

Craig Nossel, head of Wellness for Discovery Vitality, explained that obesity and poor nutrition could also start adding to the country’s economic pressures.

“The economic impact goes beyond the healthcare costs. We see that people that are overweight, obese or morbidly obese costing often three or four times more than someone who is at normal weight,” he said. 

Rising obesity in the country could also lead to not only lost productivity but spiralling healthcare bills linked to an unhealthy lifestyle, which could cost the economy 13.5 trillion rand a year.

Worldwide, close to 2.8 million people die each year as a result of obesity or being overweight.

Managing and promoting a healthy lifestyle is however difficult, especially as South Africa’s fast food industry and eating culture thrives.

International brands such as Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC), McDonald’s and Subway are some of the most popular fast food choices for South Africans.

By 2011, KFC had over 600 franchises in South Africa. McDonald’s is not far behind, with currently over 150 outlets nationwide.

Despite South Africa having a number of gyms and health clubs, high fat and high salt content foods still remain the preferred option of purchase due to their low prices.

Julia Goedecke, senior specialist scientist from the South African Medical Research Council added that poor government involvement in education and awareness campaigns on the dangers of high salt, sugar and fat content in certain foods has added to the growing health problems. 

“I think government can make a huge impact because they can impact on the pricing of healthy foods and increase price of unhealthy foods,” she said.

“It’s important to educate people, empower them to make the right decisions but often, although people know what’s correct, they don’t often make the right choices.”