Kuruman taxi driver Olebogeng Swartz, says that he cannot go a full day without drinking Coca Cola and is “addicted to the drink”.
Swartz (47) said the nature of his work means that he eats a lot of fast foods and drink fizzy cold drinks as he is always on the road and doesn’t have time to sit down for a meal.
Need for healthcare education
Most of the members of the local taxi association in Kuruman said they needed some health education, particularly around issues of diet, nutrition and the managing of chronic illnesses such as diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol that are caused by obesity and a diet overloaded with sugar.
But the dustbins in the areas surrounding the taxi rank – overflowing with empty cans and bottles from fizzy drinks and energy drinks – show that sugary drinks are winning.
“My meal of the day is mostly chips and Coke if I don’t have time to get a full plate from the canteens here at the taxi rank,” said Edward Dilodilo, a taxi owner who does long distance trips and is therefore inclined to skip on healthy food choices.
Read: Nutrition labels on food encourage healthy choices
“I always settle for Coke. Everybody drinks Coke,” said the 53-year-old man, who said he weighed in at 130kg when he last weighed himself some time ago.
Endrocrinologist Dr Sundeep Ruder says that “a sugary beverage is really just sugar with water and a whole lot of chemicals to make it taste good”.
“There’s no nutritional value,” says Ruder. “When you drink a sugary drink you’re dumping a high amount of sugar into your stomach. This glucose absorbs very quickly into the bloodstream and stresses the pancreas.”
The pancreas produces insulin to process the glucose, but generally cannot produce enough, so the sugar gets stored in the body as fat, says Ruder. And this excess fat causes diabetes, high blood pressure, heart attacks, strokes – and even cancer.
When asked how much water they drink, taxi drivers appeared startled and looked at each other. Some said they could not remember when last they had a glass of water, while others said they would normally drink Coke or flavoured water when they were thirsty.
Ironically, taxi owner Obakeng Maleke said that when he hired drivers, he looked for slender drivers because he noticed that when taxi drivers began developing weight problems, they were no longer productive and would often fall asleep while waiting at the rank for their taxi to fill up with passengers.
Obesity on the rise
According to Danell Viviers, the dietician in Postmasburg in the Northern Cape, those suffering the effects of poor eating habits and obesity should visit a nutritionist for counselling and to discuss their eating plans.
Meanwhile, in Nelspruit Musa Mbhudi Mkhatjwa, says he has no time to grab breakfast despite knowing it is an important meal. Mkhatjwa, who is a single man and drives one of his own taxis, wakes up every morning at 3.30am.
Read: Is your breakfast healthy?
Sometimes he buys what he calls street food – something he can grab quickly and eat on the run like fish and chips or a bunny chow. He eats while he drives because he does not have time to stop and eat – especially not in the morning.
He often combines his meal with a soft drink. These are easily available at taxi ranks and they are affordable. Sometimes he drinks about 2 litres of soft drinks in a day.
Mkhatjwa does not exercise because most of his time is spent on the road. He also believes that driving his taxi is all the exercise he needs.
One of the queue marshals at the Nelspruit taxi rank, who asked not to be named, said he had been observing the unhealthy lifestyles of taxi drivers for a while: “Most taxi drivers are suffering from chronic diseases caused by their unhealthy eating. They spend most of their time driving, and they arrive home late at night, often exhausted. And so even then they don’t have time for a home-cooked meal.”
From time to time, the Department of Health conducts events at taxi ranks to encourage drivers and passengers to look after their wellbeing and offers screening for chronic diseases.
Ruder says addressing obesity “is one of the most complex health challenges facing the international community this century”.
Read: Preventing obesity and diabetes
People are naturally inclined to greed and gluttony, sugar is addictive, plus junk food and drinks are heavily marketed – particularly in developing countries – says Ruder.
“Any solution will have to involve healthcare providers, government, schools, food producers, retailers and not just individuals,” says Ruder.
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