Unless the quality of food that Africans eat is addressed, the continent will not be able to address under-nutrition and obesity-related diseases or meet global nutrition goals.
This is the warning from the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Africa Region this week, speaking to a media gathering in Nairobi.
How to improve nutrition
“The burden of under-nutrition still persists across the African region, and today its impacts are being felt alongside overweight, obesity and diet-related noncommunicable diseases in many poor households,” said Dr Felicitas Zawaira, Director of Family and Reproductive Health at the regional office.
“In recent years, we’ve rightly focused many of our energies on addressing hunger, but what we must recognise is that ending hunger does not guarantee improved nutrition,” she added. “Improving nutrition sustainably requires consideration of how to produce, deliver and ensure access to healthy diets and essential nutrients, not just greater quantities of food.”
For this reason, the WHO Africa Region has recommended that a person’s nutritional status should also be recognised “as a necessary building block towards achieving Universal Health Coverage (UHC) and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030”.
In 2016, an estimated 59 million children in Africa were stunted. At the same time, 10 million African children were overweight – almost double the number compared to 2000. Meanwhile, 5% of African adult men and 15% of women were obese, while 8% of adults above 25 years of age had diabetes and almost half of all adults (46%) had hypertension, according to a 2014 report.
Diseases rooted in malnutrition
“Not only do current figures mean we are unlikely to achieve the six global nutrition targets for 2025 but also the more ambitious target of ending all forms of malnutrition by 2030, which is integral to the goal of ensuring healthy lives and promoting wellbeing for all, at all ages,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa.
“An exclusive focus of our energies – and finances – on curative services and related medical equipment, supplies and medicines to treat diseases that often are rooted in malnutrition will limit our chances of achieving health and wellbeing for all,” she added.
Malnourished children are more likely to become obese as adults as their bodies tend to store fat. In addition, the staple food of poorer communities tends to be energy-dense carbohydrates with little nutritional benefit.
“Obesity and diet-related non-communicable diseases (NCDs) are largely the result of lifestyles characterised by limited physical activity and the consumption of unhealthy diets consisting of highly processed foods that are rich in calories, sugars, fats, salt and additives, but low in essential nutrients,” said the WHO.
“When micronutrient deficiencies are taken into account, Africa is in fact experiencing a triple burden of malnutrition,” said Abdulaziz Adish from, Nutrition International.
A multi-sectoral approach
“Micronutrient deficiencies, which often pass unnoticed, are responsible for reduced bodily resilience and resistance to infections. They compromise early child development, negatively affect reproductive health and reduce work rate capacity,” he added.
Sibongile Nkosi, executive director of the Healthy Living Alliance (Heala) in South Africa, said her organisation supports the WHO’s position.
“Tackling under-nutrition, obesity and non-communicable diseases requires a multi-sectoral approach,” said Nkosi. “Heala has launched a school-based campaign aimed at getting junk food and beverages banned from schools, campaign for school feeding schemes to serve healthy food and lobby government for tighter restrictions on marketing of junk food to children.” – Health-e.
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