Many are all-too-familiar with stock photos of starving and severely malnourished African children, often the product of war, poverty, famine or some combination of the three. However, new data shows that an increasing number of Africa’s expanding middle class are now battling with obesity. It may at first seem like something to celebrate – the continent often associated with reports and documentaries about hunger and lack has made a U-turn to abundance and surplus – but really it is not.
Africa’s emerging economies have created a growth in the middle class in several countries, especially in the urban areas. With less physical exertion needed at home or work, more money to spend and the ubiquitous influence of western media trends, the continent has inevitably joined the fast food lifestyle.
Junk foods are typically over-processed, very sugary, salty, and high in saturated fats. They are known to have hardly any nutritional value of any kind, but the newly available international fast food chains are considered “cool and trendy” by many members of the middle class. Consequently, there has been an explosion in obesity levels around Africa.
Obesity is often more than just an increase in the waistline; it comes with a whole range of health conditions and physical challenges that put overweight people at greater risk of preventable diseases like diabetes, cancer, respiratory and cardiovascular crises like high blood pressure, stroke and heart attack. In fact, the World Bank projects that if left unchecked, some of these non-communicable diseases will become leading causes of death in sub-Saharan Africa.
Undernutrition is still a problem in Africa. Whole villages and communities are either underfed or suffer from serious hunger; many regions are just one crop failure away from a severe famine. Obesity and undernutrition are both considered as malnutrition.
Ironically, several studies show that undernutrition in the early childhood years increases the risk of developing obesity in adulthood. Experts fear this may lead to an established pattern of fighting undernutrition during childhood and then obesity in the later life.
Perhaps more worrying is the fact that obesity has become a rising problem among Africa’s youngsters. The number of overweight children on the continent has grown from 5.4 million to 10.3 million within the last 25 years. That means an estimated 6.1 percent of Africa’s children are now overweight. South Africa has the highest youth obesity rates, with 15 percent of its children under age 19 overweight.
Especially in urban centres, children are now living more sedentary lifestyles due to a number of reasons including expensive but crowded neighbourhoods with no open spaces for fields or playgrounds and concerns about security, which have led more parents to limit the time children can spend outdoors alone.