11/10/2017 15:59 SAST | Updated 11/10/2017 16:39 SAST

Stop Normalising Obesity In South Africa

"Fat is bad for us."

Obesity in a female body.
Staras via Getty Images
Obesity in a female body.

More South Africans are obese today than twenty years ago -- and it's costing South Africa R701 billion a year.

This is according to insights by the Discovery Vitality ObeCity Index 2017, which were presented on Wednesday in Sandton.

"15-year-olds are presenting with diabetes and heart attacks," said Dr Craig Nossel, the head of Vitality Wellness.

Research indicates that if this doesn't change, almost half of the world's adult population will be overweight or obese by 2030.

Obesity is not normal

"Stop normalising obesity," cautioned Dr Noluthando Nematswerani, the head of Discovery's Centre for Clinical Excellence.

She expressed concern at how the embracing of different body types has sometimes equated to embracing obesity in South Africa.

"Fat is bad for us. There are hormonal, immune and metabolic changes. The end effect is a rise in everything -- diabetes, cancer, strokes," explained clinical endocrinologist Dr Sundeep Ruder.

Obesity can also affect one's emotional and mental health. Consequential conditions such as depression and emotional distress may likely result from obesity.

Further, the condition was not sustainable in the private healthcare system, Dr Nematswerani pointed out -- with premiums expected to rise as private health care continues to spend money to deal with obesity.

Indirect consequences such as decreased productivity are also by-products of obesity.


"Obesity is a complex disease with many drivers,"said Dr Ruder. "Ultimately, however, it's about behaviour change."

Buying better, cooking at home more often and eating healthier are the recommended starting points.

"Stick to natural foods. No more than 20 percent of your food basket should be processed," said dietitian and exercise physiologist Gabriel Eksteen.

"Fat is bad for us. There are hormonal, immune and metabolic changes. The end effect is a rise in everything -- diabetes, cancer, strokes."

Eksteen also proposed that "health literacy" be introduced as food labels aren't equally easy to understand for everyone. "Literacy will also help people understand how much sugar and salt is (really) in their food."

Eksteen, as well as Drs Nossel, Ruder and Nematswerani, noted how big a challenge fast-food consumption was in South Africa.

In 2016, total fast food sales were R35.9 billion in South Africa, growing by 10 percent each year.

Dr Nossel attributed this in part to modernisation, which has contributed in "making us lazy" and enabled easier access to unhealthy food. "You can't drive 500 metres without seeing a food place."

Dr Ruder further questioned the association of enjoyment and junk food -- challenging South Africans to redefine what it is that makes them happy.

Incentivising healthier food choices is another way to tackle obesity, suggested economist Helen Kean. She pointed out the importance of the price of food when talking about healthier food choices.

Tackling obesity is everyone's responsibility

"It is everyone's responsibility," said Kean. She believes collaborative efforts from different stakeholders such as manufacturers, retailers, consumers, doctors, not only government, would help fight the scourge.

"Leadership is required at all levels," Dr Ruder concurred.

He believes obesity can be completely controlled with the right knowledge and simple messaging, "so we don't only act in crisis mode".

"South Africa has the potential to be a global model for fighting obesity," he said.