Africa has witnessed remarkable socioeconomic development in the last 20 years.With an average economic growth of 5.2 percent in the same period, the people seemingly have more money in their pockets to spend. Today, Africans are eating more fast food and adopting sedentary lifestyles, thereby leading to a surge in obesity and associated conditions like cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer.
According to a 2014 landmark report by the Overseas Development Institute , more than a third of adults around the world are overweight. Surprisingly, almost two-thirds of the world’s overweight people are found in low and middle-income nations.
The number of obese or overweight people in developing countries rose from 250 million to almost 1 billion in under three decades. These rates are rising faster than in rich nations where health initiatives launched by governments to combat obesity are slowing down the number — not that they eat healthier than developing countries.
Fat is no longer a problem for the developed world alone. Forget those tired old clichés beloved by the aid industry, today more people in poorer countries go to bed each night having consumed too many calories.
Noncommunicable Diseases are projected to become the leading cause of death in sub-Saharan Africa by 2030, according to the World Bank.
With nearly double the average global obesity rates, South Africa epitomises this alarming new trend. According to reports, South Africa has eaten up other countries to become the world’s third fattest nation, with early two-thirds of the population now overweight.
Incredibly, 69.3 percent of South African females display unhealthy levels of body fat and more than four in 10 are clinically obese (defined as having a BMI higher than 30). This is unlike in the developed world where men are more obese than women. As the middle class continues to grow in other rapidly urbanising African countries, the queues at fashionable fast food restaurants like Kentucky Fried Chicken in the malls are becoming longer and more frequent.
“The malls are the ‘in’ thing,” said Zachary Muriuki, a nutritionist specialising in diabetes with Kenya’s health ministry.“We are seeing a trend of obesity cases rising,” he said, blaming unhealthy diets and increased use of cars.
Kenya’s per capita consumption of processed sugar has health experts worried. While 94 percent of the population eat less than the recommended five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, 84 percent often add sugar to their food and drinks. The rates of obesity and being overweight are rising in nearly every country in the world, the Global Nutrition Report said, describing malnutrition as the “new normal.”
One in three people worldwide are experiencing malnutrition, the report stated, with 44 percent of countries facing serious levels of both under-nutrition and obesity. “Many countries now across Africa are facing a double burden of malnutrition,” Shane Norris, a nutrition expert at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview.
Botswana typifies the dissonance; a third of children under age five are malnourished, while 48 percent of those over 15 are obese, showing persistent under-nutrition in early life and obesity in later life.While under-nutrition is falling globally, few countries are succeeding in tackling obesity and the four main noncommunicable diseases (NCD) linked to it: diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular diseases and chronic respiratory diseases.
However, as people across Africa continue to bite more than they can chew, it is paramount that health experts with the support of the government roll out programmes that will promote healthy living for the population while reversing this trend of obesity and the associated diseases.