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by Bridget Boakye, at 09:18 pm, February 06, 2018, Lifestyle, Opinion

Is fast food to blame for Ghana’s obesity epidemic?

Obesity in Kenya via the Guardian

There is growing concern about rising obesity in Ghana and Africa at large. According to research by Quartz, obesity is high among urban African women between 15 and 49 years and has increased in the 24 African countries the research has been conducted in over the last 25 years.

Egypt has the highest prevalence of obesity, with two out of every five Egyptians (39%) being obese, followed by 22% in Ghana, with obesity being most prevalent among lower income earners. Among obesity factors, the most cited today is fast food.

Late last year, the New York Times published an article titled “Obesity Was Rising as Ghana Embraced Fast Food. Then Came KFC”, where the writers argue that the growing rate of obesity in the country is being fueled by changing lifestyles and diet, rising income, social pressure and status, and notably, KFC and Pizza Hut, whose lure and propaganda Ghanaians can’t seem to resist. In fact, the country seems poised to collapse under the weight of its people.

This week, signs at the Accra Mall point to the emergence of yet another fast food franchise in the country – Burger King. Burger King first entered the African market via South Africa in 2013 and has acquired the rights to open stores in Zambia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia and Mauritius, Angola, and Ivory Coast, where it is currently operating.

With Ghana regaining its position as the “star of the West”, Ghana’s market seems poised for Burger King’s entry as analysts rank it as Africa’s fastest-growing economy this year.

But, Fast Food Can’t Tell Ghana’s Entire Obesity Story

With Burger King set to open, many are quick and eager to point to fast food as the cause of the country’s obesity crisis. This, however, may be misguided.

Although Ghanaians face mounting pressure and exposure to “Western” fast and processed foods,  Ghanaians and Africans, in general, have a history of obesity that predates these players. Ghanaians have traditionally praised “larger bodies” – beer belly for men, and big buttocks for women – as signs of wealth, power, and being well-kept. These social cues and aspirations are decades old and go beyond easy troupes of Africans being manipulated by Western fast food propaganda.

Ghanaians also find themselves negotiating among their choices and portions with traditional foods, as they move from active, labor-intensive work on farms to more sedentary, office lifestyles, which require less of the local carbohydrate-rich foods  ( ie. fufu and banku)  Ghanaians are used to. Ghanaian food as Ghanaians enjoy them today also contributes to obesity.

On the side of consumer health, growing access to technology and information means more Ghanaians are learning about illnesses and diseases and their causes, diagnosis,  and treatment.  Both lifestyle changes and access to technology has led to an increase in the reported number of health-related illnesses and has encouraged many to pursue a healthy lifestyle.

There are countless gyms, fitness clubs, vegetarian and vegan restaurants, health stores, and online groups and vendors who are fanning the health craze in Ghana. These scores of fitness enthusiasts in the country must be encouraged and supported.

In sum, the history of obesity in Ghana reaches far beyond the recent influx of fast food restaurants. To fully address the concerning issue of obesity in Ghana and Africa at large, governments, health officials and interested public entities must deal with the deeper cultural history of obesity in their societies.

As one research in South Africa found, in many cases, obese women in Africa are often malnourished or over-nourished, often eating for comfort, pleasure, and food, which points to a larger cultural and health problem way beyond eating fast food. 

“Although women expressed the desire to lose some excess weight for practical reasons, there was no negative social pressure to motivate this. The attitudes recorded from the research project suggest that cultural perceptions of excess body weight … complicate the design of effective health promotion strategies to normalise and maintain ideal body weight”, the researchers explained. 

Sure, foreign fast food entrants must be regulated and cautioned against. But cultural beliefs about body aesthetics are yet to fully change and this will continue to impede any progress in the area if not addressed. 

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