South Africa is on its way to overtaking America as the world’s fattest nation. Almost half of South Africans over the age of 15 are overweight or obese, and medical researchers warn that the government may soon have to step in to manage the epidemic.
In 1998, 56% of women and 29% of men, aged 15 years or older in South Africa, were overweight or obese. These rates had not changed by 2003.
For men, the obesity rate was the highest in whites (18%), followed by Indians and coloureds (8%) and then by Africans (6%). For women, the differences among the groups were much smaller, with the highest rates in Africans (32%), followed by coloureds (26%), whites (23%) and then Indians (21%).
Urban people had higher weights than people who were living outside the cities, and some of the poorer South African provinces had high prevalence rates for overweight and/or obesity.
Raising an obese nation
Perhaps the most alarming, is the fact that 17% of children between the ages of 1 and 8 were overweight, and 5% were obese in 1999.
Studies indicate overweight children are highly likely to grow into overweight adults, most with a lot of potentially life-threatening problems in tow, including increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, kidney disease and even some forms of cancer.
Some children are experiencing such problems even before they reach adulthood. Doctors start to see type II diabetes (usually in adults) in overweight children.
Obesity brings other health problems
“Many chronic and potentially fatal diseases are all linked to obesity,” dietician Dr Ingrid van Heerden says. “If you are obese (i.e. body mass index – BMI – equal to or greater than 30), then the risk you run of developing heart disease, high blood pressure, a stroke, diabetes, cancer and psychological problems increases dramatically.”
It’s estimated that there are about 1.5 million South Africans with diabetes. In 2000, diabetes caused 3% of deaths in men and 6% of deaths in women 30 years and older.
Obesity can be the result of a number of factors, ranging from chemical imbalances and genetic factors to unhealthy lifestyle choices and modern living.
“South Africans are facing an explosion in obesity because such a large segment of our population is rapidly moving to the cities and adopting western eating habits,” says Dr van Heerden. “Cultural practices and advertising play an important role in making people regard foods as desirable even if they are ‘fatal’ for weight gain. I’m often amazed at the subtle connotations the advertisers use to seduce the public to buy all kinds of foods that are laden with fat and kilojoules.”
“If you are obese, then it’s vital that you take steps to remedy the situation as soon as possible,” says Dr van Heerden. “Losing weight and increasing your fitness will improve your medical condition significantly and may even save your life.”