01 November 2004

Obesity - staggering statistics

Nearly 50% of adults in the developed world suffer from overweight or outright obesity and South Africa is on par with countries such as the USA and the UK, research shows.

Nearly 50% of adults in the developed world suffer from overweight or outright obesity and South Africa is on par with countries such as the USA and the UK, with up to 40% of women suffering from obesity.

These staggering facts were recently highlighted by Prof Philip James, Chairman of the International Obesity Task Force, at the first Regional Congress on Obesity, organised by the International Association for the Study of Obesity (IASO).

Africa has always been regarded as a continent where famine, undernutrition and starvation were the most pressing problems. However, new research indicates that as African populations become westernised and urbanised – two processes that are taking place at an alarming rate – the incidence of overweight and obesity increases exponentially.

Now, once-undernourished populations have just as high an incidence of obesity as the US population, which is currently leading the obesity epidemic. For example, more than 25% of the population in Egypt are already obese, and we in South Africa are even more affected with obesity figures of 40-50%.

Adults are not the only ones to face an ever-increasing growth in obesity. At present, 80 million children and adolescents in Europe are either overweight or obese. The UK leads the world in childhood obesity, and with one out of four children in South Africa struggling with overweight, the picture in our country also looks bleak.

The speakers at the Congress confirmed that fat children become fat adults.

Increased mortality
If we keep in mind that the WHO has identified high blood pressure and stroke, cigarette smoking and associated cancers, raised blood cholesterol levels and associated heart disease, diabetes and obesity, as the leading causes of death in future, then the fact that nearly every second South African is overweight, is cause for grave concern.

The link between obesity and insulin resistance, or type 2, diabetes is also worrying. It has been said that developing countries, like South Africa, are sitting on a ‘diabetes time bomb’.

This disease, which was practically unknown in the past, is predicted to mushroom in the next 20 years. Diabetes is associated with an increase in heart disease, kidney failure, blindness and other debilitating diseases.

Unfortunately, women are more prone to developing diabetes if they are obese than men. With 40% of our female population classified as obese or overweight, the prediction that every second or third woman in South Africa will suffer from diabetes by 2025 is not unrealistic.

What lies at the root of the obesity epidemic?
What lies behind this terrifying and seemingly unstoppable global epidemic? Speakers at the IASO Congress agreed that there are common factors. These include:

  • The unlimited supply of instantly available fast food, which is rich in fat, simple carbohydrates and energy. Such food is referred to as “energy dense” and eating fast foods like hamburgers, hot dogs, or fried chicken with mounds of chips, will pile on the kilograms.
  • The unlimited supply of instantly available sweetened cold drinks. There is practically no place left on earth where you won’t find a fridge stocked with ice-cold cola drinks that are brimming with ‘fast’ energy.
  • The inability of the human body to cope with liquid energy. This means that we are more likely to gain weight from sweetened cold drinks and other sugar-rich beverages than from solid food. It was suggested at the Congress that humans are becoming obese because we are not used to ingesting vast numbers of kilojoules as cold drinks.
  • The sharp decrease in physical activity. Not only do we expend less energy during work, but most people, including children, spend many hours a day sitting passively in front of the TV or a computer, vegetating away and expanding by the hour. The fact that ‘exercise’ no longer forms part of the school curriculum in most South African government schools is regarded as a tragedy of vast proportions.
  • Undernutrition before and after birth creates a scenario where the individual is much more prone to gaining weight when fed on ‘empty’ calories. This means that low birth-weight babies and stunted children are much more likely to develop obesity in later life than babies and children who start their lives with a normal weight.
  • Advertising of cheap, fast foods and sweetened beverages, which is primarily targeted at children and teenagers, creates generations who have no idea of what a balanced diet should consist of.
  • The decline of family structures contributes to everyone eating on the run and turning to fast-food outlets for more meals.
  • The totally inappropriate tuck-shop policies at most schools, where it is hard to find a single food or drink that is not energy dense and loaded with calories, has much to answer for. The amazingly irresponsible use of fast food and drink vending machines at our schools also contributes to the problem.

- (Dr Ingrid van Heerden, DietDoc)

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