Fighting Fat: The Growth of Childhood Obesity in Africa

9 Min Read

January 25, 2013 By Sitinga Kachipande

Generic fastfood (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In today’s globalized world, African children living in the cities are increasingly at risk of contracting middle class diseases. The lifestyle and eating habits in the urban areas in Africa has been undergoing transformations over the past few years. Factors such as food choice and social conditions have contributed to this increase, making obesity rates amongst middle class African children problematic. Childhood obesity is linked with serious health problems and increases risks of contracting premature illnesses later in life.

Obesity rates are reaching epic proportions in sub-Saharan Africa. In a World Health Organization study published by De Onis, Blossenr and Borghi (2010) in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, they estimate that the prevalence of childhood overweight and obesity in Africa in 2010 was 8.5% and is expected to reach 12.7%  by 2020. The situation has become so severe that in countries such as Mauritius, one third of children aged 6 to 19 are either overweight or obese. Similar patterns of obesity can be seen in the adult populations in Mauritius. Other countries are experiencing similar trends in their youth and adult populations.

The growth in obesity has been accompanied by an increase in lifestyle related to non-communicable diseases in children and adults in all countries such as diabetes, cancer, hypertension and heart disease. This is beginning to put a strain on the fragile health systems in Africa as new health related problems are rising.

The cause of this increase of obese African children is accredited to a variety of factors including food choices and social conditions. With the rise of the middle class, there has been an increase in sedentary behavior, purchasing power, high fat diets and consumption of low-cost imported foods in this group.

The African diet in urban areas is increasingly laden with high fat foods. There has been a growth in the presence of local, regional, and international fast food restaurants such as Kentucky Fried Chicken and Steers. This means many more people are relying on burgers, fries, fried chicken, and pizza as part of their regular diets. This has been accompanied by an increase in the availability and numbers of processed foods in supermarkets, many of which are cheap imports. In Luanda, Angola, these imported processed foods are at times less costly than buying healthier locally grown foods. Additionally, vendors in the city typically fry their street foods in high fat oils making fatty foods easily accessible to a range of middle class budgets. Furthermore, there has been more frequent consumption of alcohol and tobacco.

The change in social conditions has also contributed to obesity. African children are becoming more sedentary in their lifestyle and engaging in less activity. Many African children are choosing to spend their days playing video games, surfing the internet or watching satellite television rather than engaging in physical activities. Although this appears to be the same issues faced by their middle class counterparts in the global north, there are a few social issues that further complicate Africa’s growing obesity problem. Unlike in the global north, labor in Africa is less costly, therefore more African middle class families have domestic workers, which means the children are less likely to perform chores or other work. Many of the affluent also rely on drivers and do not engage in much short-distance or long distance walking. The legal drinking age in African nations  is lower (typically eighteen) than in countries such as the U.S. where the drinking age is twenty-one. Additionally, those under the legal age are often still able to purchase alcohol at stores. Therefore, middle class African children have greater access to obesity causing alcoholic beverages than those in the global north. In many African countries, cultural attitudes have lead to overweight people being admired because large size signifies prosperity. Therefore you are less likely to find mass supporters for weight loss for young children.

The growing rate of obesity-related problems coupled by the lack of awareness of obesity related issues though is concerning and needs greater attention. Many programs by NGOs, governments and civil societies do not often target obesity problems for various reasons. Obesity is a new problem on the continent and data is few. Additionally, food security has been an on-going problem in many African nations and many people on the continent still face starvation. This means governments, international non-profits, and civil society are unlikely to focus on issues encouraging healthy diets in the middle class. The problem, however, needs to target both demographics since many of the lower income classes will move into the middle class.

There needs to be a greater focus on creating awareness and decreasing obesity amongst the middle class. When it comes to serving a balanced meal, nutritional education at the household level is needed. Some in the middle class are educated but may be ignorant when it comes to nutrition. Others may have the income to buy the food but may not have extensive formal or nutritional education. Therefore nutrition education is needed across the board. When people belong to the middle class, their diets sometimes change. In many countries, eating meat is seen as a sign of affluence as well, therefore it is common to find a household meal comprised of a starch and several meats. The over reliance on food like nsima (foo-foo) or rice during meals is also problematic since they are high in starch (and calories) but eaten in abundance with the main meal. In brief, nutrition awareness programs should be targeted to rich and poor alike as they are needed across demographics.

Obesity is a growing problem in Africa and needs to be addressed in the middle class and affluent urban areas. As Africa changes and adjusts to new lifestyle, there is a need to readjust so that we are not creating new health problems. We are already witnessing changes in the types of diseases being diagnosed and need to start to prevent them early. Middle class African children should be encouraged to engage in greater physical activity including chores, playing, and participating in sports at school. They should also decrease their video game, Facebook and television watching hours. Lastly, they should be taught good nutrition habits from a young age.

Although there are health-conscious parents on the continent who teach healthy eating habits to their children and encourage an active lifestyle in them, the increase in obesity among the youth signifies that there is a problem. Globalization for Africa has meant the acquisition of global health problems in addition to the ones already there. The government of the island-nation of Mauritius has already taken steps towards preventative measures by actively managing its obesity problem and encouraging healthy diets and lifestyles. This should be emulated in other Africa countries facing obesity related health problems.

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