Historically, obesity levels have been relatively low in Africa. However, they are steadily rising across the continent as a result of urbanisation, sedentary lifestyles, and fat-rich diets.
Projections now show that one in five adults and one in 10 children and teenagers will be obese by December 2023 if no robust measures are taken to reverse the trends.
This is according to a new analysis by the World Health Organization (WHO) which defines obesity as a health condition involving excessive body fat which increases the risk of health problems.
Obesity is often a result of taking in more calories than are burned by exercise and normal daily activities.
It occurs when a person’s body mass index is 30 or more. Usually, the main symptom is excessive body fat, which boosts the risk of serious health problems and diseases including heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and even certain types of cancers.
For children, being overweight is tied to a greater chance of obesity, premature death, and disability in adulthood.
As the globe marks the World Obesity Day on March 4, the WHO analysis estimates that the prevalence of obesity among adults in the 10 high-burden nations will range from 13.6 to 31 percent, while in children and adolescents it will range from 5 to 16.5 percent.
“Africa is facing a growing problem of obesity and overweight, and the trends are rising. This is a ticking time bomb. If unchecked, millions of people, including children, risk living shorter lives under the burden of poor health,” Dr Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO regional director for Africa said.Dr Matshidiso Moeti
He, however added that “…we can resolve the crisis because many of the causes of obesity and overweight are preventable and reversible.”
Africa also faces a growing problem of overweight in children.
In 2019, 24 percent of the world’s overweight children aged under five lived in Africa. According to the 2021 Global Nutrition Report, all African countries with available data are off track to meet global targets on adult obesity.
The latest data shows that 18.4 per cent of women and 7.8 per cent of men on the continent live with obesity — a jump from 12 per cent and 4.1 per cent, respectively, in 2000.
In the fight against Covid-19, obesity is also emerging as a critical factor in Covid-19 mortality with overweight being linked to severe disease and the need for hospitalization.
Despite the lack of data on the relationship between obesity and Covid-19 hospitalization, a study published by the Journal of Infection and Public Health found that of the 2.5 million Covid-19 deaths reported globally by the end of February last year, 2.2 million were in countries where more than half the population is classified as overweight.
SPEEDY ACTION NEEDED
Despite nutrition activists saying that urgent action is required, they have cautioned that to deal with the crisis, governments must begin by reimagining food systems and educating populations.
Deflating the risk of overweight and obesity involves adopting a healthy diet which includes reducing the number of calories consumed in fats and sugars, exercising regularly and also
government policies that help people opt for healthier lifestyles and diets, for instance, by ensuring that healthy foods are accessible and affordable.
To counter obesity and overweight, WHO recommends a range of priority measures including government regulations such as mandatory limits on food sugar content; fiscal policies, for example, taxing sugar-sweetened beverages; food marketing regulations such as obligatory nutrient declaration by manufacturers; promoting healthier foods for older infants and young children; creating facilities for safe, active transport and recreation as well as reinforcing public health services.
Currently, East African nations Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda are being supported to come up with and enforce regulatory standards and fiscal measures to boost healthy diets and physical activity.
They are being supported via a global initiative supported by WHO, the International Development Law Organisation, the International Development Research Centre, and the Swiss Development Cooperation.
This year, WHO will work with 10 more high-burden African countries for fastened obesity reduction initiatives.
The international organisation, however, did not disclose which countries these will be.