We’re becoming an obese nation

2013-08-29 00:00

SHOCKINGLY, the number of people living in South Africa who are overweight and even obese is rapidly on the rise. More than 60% of the South African population is either overweight or obese. Historically, the United States has been the infamous icon of excess. Not only is it a land of bigger cars and houses, but one of bigger meals, bigger restaurants, wider choices and ultimately, bigger people.

In an effort to westernise and catch up with the developed world, has South Africa paid a price too high for the nation’s health? Have we adopted habits and behaviours best avoided?

In South Africa’s working population, about 42% of men are either overweight or obese, and 69% of women tip the scales at significantly high levels.

Given the side effects and long-term chronic diseases associated with being overweight, this doesn’t paint a pretty picture. Weight is not simply an issue of the bathroom scale groaning after a particularly indulgent meal or two.

The South African Demographic and Health survey (SADHS) was conducted in 2003 and highlighted a number of shocking statistics. One surprising finding was that 60% of obese people do not consider themselves obese. This denial has prevented appropriate measures being taken to correct the problem and there is now evidence of this 10 years later. Results from the South African National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (Sanhanes-1) were released earlier this month and they paint a very disturbing picture. Obesity and overweight prevalence has increased over the past decade, across all age groups, provinces and race groups. To highlight just one category, obesity in women has increased from 27% in 2003 to 39% at present. May I suggest taking a cold hard look at the numbers and evaluating ourselves? Try out the following measuring tools.

• The degree of overweight or obesity is measured by an index called BMI (body mass index). To calculate your BMI, divide your mass (in kilograms) by your height in metres squared.

BMI = body mass (kg) / [height (m) x height (m)]

The normal healthy range for this reading is between 18,5 and 24,9, with a reading over 25 indicating overweight, and over 30 indicating obesity. People who have a substantially high muscle mass may be inappropriately classified as obese, for example rugby players. Generally speaking, though, it is a useful measurement for the average individual.

In 2003, the SADHS study found that in people 30 years or older, 32 men and 68 women die every day because of the impact of a high BMI. Ten years later, the average BMI of South Africans has increased even further, leading to even more unnecessary deaths.

• Another useful and very simple measurement is that of waist circumference, which gives an idea of abdominal fat. The most high-risk area for excess fat stores is around the middle — the infamous “spare tyre” or apple shape. Excess abdominal fat is strongly associated with heart disease and diabetes. Pass a tape measure around the widest point of your belly ... and then let’s talk about your findings.

A measurement larger than 102 cm in men and larger than 88 cm in women indicates an increased risk for heart disease.

Combined with a high BMI, the risks to your heart rise even further. The Sahanes-1 study revealed that 20% of men and 68% of women have excessively high waist circumferences.

My challenge today is to do the measurements and know exactly where you stand on the health scale. Over the next few weeks, we will take a closer look at what can be done in each of our households to curb the frightening trend towards obesity.

• Sharon Hultzer is a consulting dietitian. She can be reached at eatsmart@iburst.co.za

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