Based on the results of the first South African National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (SANHANES-1), published by the HSRC (Human Sciences Research Council) in August 2013, South Africa is classified as one of “most obese nations in the world”.
Even the Deputy Editor of the SA Medical Journal, Bridget Farnham (2014) recently asked why South Africans are known as “the fattest population in sub-Saharan Africa”, and questioned the role of food.
The statistics that emerged from SANHANES-1 are frightening. More than 69% of women older than 20 were classified as overweight, and 42% of them were classified as obese. In adult men, nearly 39% were overweight and 13,5% obese.
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Even our children even start their lives at a disadvantage. In the 2- to 14-year-old group, up to 16,5% of girls and 11,5% of boys suffered from overweight, and 7,1% of the girls and 4,7% of the boys were obese (HSRC, 2013). When we take into account that the incidence of overweight and obesity in children was reportedly highest in the 2-5 year age group, alarm bells start ringing.
A number of writers have linked this surge in obesity to what they call “the South African addiction to fast-food”.
In 2009 Dr Feeley and her co-authors already pointed out in a paper on “Fast-food consumption among 17-year-olds in the Birth to Twenty cohort”, that the so-called “born-free generation” were eating up to 8 items of fast-food per week. I would hazard a guess that this frequency has increased considerably since then, and affects not only young people but all age groups.
The role of fried chicken in the fast-food craze
Deep-fried and batter-dipped or crumbed chicken (a recipe that was imported from America), together with hamburgers of ever-increasing size, and generous helpings of sweetened cold drinks, are regarded as the prime culprits in fuelling weight gain in South Africa.
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All of this makes one wonder why South Africans are so attracted to these relatively simple foods?
The components of food attraction are varied and complex, as is the case with any aspect of weight gain, eating and human physiology. Some of these components may involve internal factors such as the macronutrient content and external factors ranging from taste to religion.
a) High energy content
The most primal dietary need which all humans have, is to satisfy their need for energy.
The human brain uses up to 15% of our cardiac output, 20% of our total oxygen requirement (we develop brain damage if our “grey cells” are deprived of oxygen for more than 3 minutes) and 25% of our carbohydrate intake.
Add to this the high need for energy just to keep all the body processes going (the so-called Basic Metabolic Rate) even when we are at rest, plus any additional energy we use for physical activity, and you can understand that humans, like all living organisms, are obsessed with obtaining food that provides energy.
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Fried chicken and other fast-foods provide plenty of energy, particularly when paired with sweetened cold drinks. A combo such as the KFC Street Wise II (112 g of deep-fried chicken [a wing and a drumstick], and 135g of fried chips, plus a 330 ml of cola) analysed in 2009, packed an energy punch of 3,686 kJ or 878 kcal per meal.
Perhaps the most telling result of the fast-food consumption study is a comparison of the energy content per 100g of the 4 popular fast-food meals included in the survey minus the cold drink, namely:
(* Prices as applicable during the study period from September 2007 to May 2008
In other words, the deep-fried, crumbed or batter-dipped chicken with fried chips provided the most energy-dense meal available at the second most advantageous price to the youngsters in the study. And two of the most powerful drivers of consumer spending are energy-density and affordability.
A recent article on “The most fattening fast-food meals in SA” by Quinton Bronkhorst also found that KFC’s Wicked Zinger Box Meal consisting of a burger, Zinger wings, chips, mash and a cola drink is capable of providing 6,413 kJ or 76% of the average energy requirement for an adult woman at a price of R64.90. High energy at a highly competitive price!
b) High fat content
Foods rich in fat have always been greatly desired when we consider that the primeval diet of our caveman ancestors consisted of very lean venison, fruits, tubers, shoots and wild grains which contained practically no fat at all.
Fat is the most energy-dense macronutrient at our disposal providing 39 kJ or 9 kcal per gram, which is double the energy content of 17 kJ or 4 kcal per gram of protein or carbohydrate. So ancient humans were eager to find foods rich in energy-dense fat, and their present day descendants have not outgrown that urge to hunt out fatty foods.
Read: Planet Fat
Deep-fried meat that is not carefully drained after frying will provide us with the fat in the meat plus fat left over from frying or trapped in the crumbs or batter enveloping the meat. In the above mentioned chicken combo, the chicken wing and drumstick contributed 21 g of fat (50%) to the total for the meal.
c) Added carbohydrate
Under normal circumstances meat does not contain any carbohydrate, but once a piece of chicken has been dipped in crumbs or batter, the carbohydrate content increases considerably. The chicken contributed 14 g or 19% of the carbohydrate of the KFC combo meal (see above), which once again enhanced its desirability. Compared to the whopping carbohydrate content of the fried chips (47.4 g or 65,6 %), the coating of the chicken does not seem important, but it is startling that the chicken actually contributed more carbohydrate to the meal than the glass of cola which provided 10.9 g of carbs or 15,5%.
Taste sensations are also highly complex and are governed by a great many factors including perception of salty, sweet, sour, bitter and umami flavours, associated aromas, mouthfeel (the combination of physical and chemical interactions in the mouth) and texture (a combination of crisp crumbs and soft meat). Most fast-food deep-fried, crumbed chicken companies have developed the taste sensation which consumers experience when they eat their products to a fine art. For example, the slogan “Colonel Sander’s secret recipe of 11 herbs and spices” has become part of urban consciousness. To this day the recipe of those herbs and spices remains a “secret”, but it does contribute to the overall lure of the product.
The role of advertising in the promotion of food sales, is well known. If people are exposed to relentless advertising from the moment they can understand ads until they reach advanced old age, it is not surprising that our entire population is captive to the siren song of fast-food advertising.
f) Religions considerations
Three of the major religions in South Africa, namely Zionism, Judaism and Islam, impose bans on certain foods, but not on the consumption of chicken meat. By selecting chicken meat as their prime offering all the different crumbed and deep-fried chicken brands have a true winner. Pork would not have been a success as it is forbidden to a large part of our population.
In summary we can say that chicken which is portioned, dipped in crumbs, spices and/or batter and deep-fried, is highly addictive to most people throughout the world, and South Africans are no exception. How this high-energy, high-fat, energy-dense, relatively inexpensive and convenient food impacts on the incidence of obesity is difficult to pinpoint, but when presented to populations with highly thrifty genes that have withstood millennia of famine and food shortages, it is irresistible and addictive.
No one kind of food can, however, be blamed for the entire multifactorial obesity epidemic. Many other factors besides food play a role in obesity in South Africa and other parts of the world, such as lack of physical activity and sedentary lifestyles. It is, however, a good idea to limit one’s intake of all fast-foods and sweetened cold drinks to special occasions and not to indulge every day.
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- Bronkhorst Q (2015). The most fattening fast-food meals in SA. Published on 28 January 2015. tech.co.za/news/general/77635/the-most-fattening-fast-food-meals-in-sa/
- Feeley A et al (2009). Fast-food consumption among 17-year-olds in the Birth to Twenty cohort. SA Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 22(3): 118-123; HSRC (2013). SANHANES-1, Media releases, August 2013
- Farnham B (2014). Making us fat (and sick). SA Medical Journal, 104(12): 835.
Image: Fried chicken from Shutterstock
Dr Ingrid van Heerden is a registered dietician and holds a doctoral degree in Nutrition and Biochemistry. She believes that "we are what we eat" and offers free nutrition and weight loss advice via her DietDoc service on Health24.com. Read more of her articles.