By Mary Hearty

By the end of next year, one in five adults and one in ten children and teenagers in 10 high-burden African countries are likely to be obese if robust prevention measures are not taken to reverse the trend, a new World Health Organization (WHO) analysis on obesity reveals.

The analysis finds that the prevalence of obesity among adults in those countries will range from 13.6% to 31%, while in children and adolescents it will range from 5% to 16.5%.

In addition, Africa faces a growing problem of overweight in children. In 2019, the continent was home to 24% of the world’s overweight children under five years of age.

While no data is available yet for Africa, 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 2021, 2.2 million were in countries where more than half the population is classified as overweight.

“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,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa. “But we can resolve the crisis, because many of the causes of obesity and overweight are preventable and reversible.”

Dietary habits such as consuming energy-dense foods, sedentary lifestyles or lack of physical activity associated with rising urbanization or changing modes of transport in many countries are significant drivers of obesity.

Lack of strong policies in key sectors including health, agriculture, urban planning and environment to support healthier lifestyles also contributes to growing obesity and overweight in many countries.

To combat 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.

Through a global initiative supported by WHO, the International Development Law Organization, the International Development Research Centre and the Swiss Development Cooperation, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda are being supported to develop and implement regulatory standards and fiscal measures to promote healthy diets and physical activity.

Being obese or overweight raises the risk of suffering cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, muscle and skeletal disorders as well some types of cancer. Among children, being overweight is associated with a higher chance of obesity, premature death and disability in adulthood.

Lowering the risk of overweight and obesity includes adopting a healthy diet such as reducing the number of calories consumed in fats and sugars, undertaking regular physical activity as well as government policies that help people opt for healthier lifestyles and diets, for instance, by ensuring that healthy foods are accessible and affordable.

“For consumers, it is important to distinguish between safe oils and fats that are good for the health. Good fats come mainly from vegetables, nuts, seeds and fish. Saturated and enhanced fatty acids can raise cholesterol levels; clog arteries and increases the risk of heart disease is found in fatty meats, fried foods and breaded goats and processed snacks,” Dr Moeti said.

As COVID-19 continues to demand much of our attention, she emphasized that we must also look into the response to Africa’s many other health issues.

The theme for the 2022 World Obesity Day which is marked on 4 March is  “Everybody Needs to Act”

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