Wednesday, September 7, 2005

Fat is an African issue

It was the doughnut I was eating while pondering a topic for this week’s column that got me thinking about fatness. The doughnut helped me recall an article I read last year. ‘South Africans as fat as Americans’, the BBC reported gleefully. The article focused on a conference on obesity that took place at Sun City. Despite the ironic choice of Sun City, the temple of overindulgence, as the setting for discussing obesity, the research coming out of the conference was no laughing matter.

South Africans do not match US heavyweights on the obesity stakes but are not far off. Almost 50% of South African adults are overweight or obese, compared with 61% of Americans. About 20% of people fall into the obese category in South Africa, close to the US level of 27%. Obesity also shows no racial boundaries. Across all racial categories in South Africa, the incidence of obesity ranges from 21% to 30% for women and 9% to 20% for men. But how can this be possible in a country where 40% of South Africans are income-poor?

The World Health Organisation points out that obesity can coexist with undernutrition, and overnutrition does not necessarily coincide with good nutrition. Obesity brings problems associated with type-2 diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, stroke and cancer. As many people die of malnutrition in South Africa as from diseases associated with obesity. This is because food high in saturated fats and sugars, coupled with sedentary lifestyles, is steadily becoming the norm in urban South Africa for many, rich and poor. Peddlers of junk food, mainly the domestic and international fast-food outlets and cheap supermarkets, are growing at an alarming rate. Their aggressive marketing is legendary.

In the film Super Size Me, featuring a filmmaker who eats his way to ill health by living on McDonalds food for a month, there is an amusing scene where five-year-olds are asked to name various people from pictures. Most cannot recognise Jesus or George W Bush but all know Ronald McDonald. What do you think the odds are of more South African kids recognising Colonel Sanders than Thabo Mbeki?

At the same time, surely this does not mean South Africans have to be turned into fanatical diet freaks, as in the West. I like returning to South Africa, especially if I am carrying a few extra pounds, and being complimented by black colleagues on how well I am looking. Weight gain is a sign of living the good life and doing well. This beats the hell out of dieting yourself into oblivion just to meet some Western stereotype of stick insect beauty. There must be a happy medium. My concern is that, as the hype about the issue of obesity grows, we might turn everyone into weight-obsessed calorie counters. According to Fat: Exploding the Myths, by Lisa Colles, Americans spend up to $50-billion each year on diet programmes. I wouldn’t be surprised if McDonalds branches off into flogging diet muti soon. Then again, given that $50-billion is close to 10% of the South African GDP, perhaps the government could sell diet products to the overweight (even if their kids cannot recognise Thabo Mbeki) to generate public funds. We need a home-grown solution to South Africa’s battle with the bulge and to return to basics like adequate nutrition, limited advertising to children and moderate exercise. There is a lot at stake; if we don’t get this right the stereotype of the ‘fat American’ will seem a bit too close to home.

Copyright Brandon Hamber, August 2005. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 12 August 2005.