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The South African food taboo | Confronting the obesity crisis

07 February 2013, 13:00

South Africans are getting fatter. We’re placed third in the world obesity ranking according to Compass Group Southern Africa’s 2011 report, and the first developing country on the list. We’re a game changer in the global obesity epidemic, proof that fatness doesn't have to be an exclusively first world problem.

The SA Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR) recently reported that almost a third of black South African women are obese, followed by coloured, white and Indian women, a quarter of whom follow suit. Interestingly, 18 % of white South African men are obese, a fact that tips the demographic scales of gender and race and their link to obesity. While women are usually more inclined to be overweight, the alarming percentage of obese white men in SA calls for further scrutiny.

While I don’t usually support the exclusive use of skin colour as a criterion for statistics, the demographic link between ethnicity and body weight is irrefutable. The findings lead to broader questions of eating habits, dietary choices and cultural attitudes to food, all of which contribute to the more obvious strictures set down by class, race, gender and socio-economic status.

Looking at my university campus, I notice an abundance of take-away stalls and food stands selling doughnuts at eight o’clock in the morning and wilting hot chips for lunch, as well as vending machines packed with sugary drinks. At a place of higher learning, isn’t it expected that students understand the dangers of bad eating? Shouldn’t the institution itself be promoting healthier eating habits? You’d think so, but this is not the case.

Our ancestors’ hunter-gatherer instincts are long extinct. Globalisation and the miraculous take-away has made us lazy, lulled by knowledge that food is a mere phone call away and a microwave meal only a few minutes from served. Rapid urbanisation sees people moving from rural areas in search of inner-city thrills – and cuisine.

Last year, Alice Randall published an article in The New York Times entitled ‘Black Women and Fat.’

‘Many black women are fat because we want to be,’ came the punch-line, as readers in all six continents fell off their chairs. In fact, the ideal of the large black woman is a plus for the men who love them, and who want nothing more than for their wives to maintain their curvy physiques. 

Lifestyle, diet, poverty and demographics determine the weight of our nation.  There is a scourge of physical inactivity countrywide, coupled with deeply-rooted a cultural perception that big is beautiful. But how are the poor supposed to exercise? Physical activity is limited in lower income areas, as there aren’t enough sports centres, parks, greenbelts, gyms and playing fields to promote exercise. Without money for gym memberships or safe roads for jogging, the notion of breaking a sweat is pretty unfeasible. And with electricity shortages in townships, can people really keep fresh foods? Without refrigerators, reliance on pap and other non-perishables in poor households is the norm. Despite access to fruit and vegetables at local grocers, junk food prevails across economic and class divisions in SA.

In SA, there’s a KFC in almost every suburb, selling buckets of chicken dripping in batter and oil. Samoosas, vetkoek and fried chicken, all Mzansi delicacies, all high in saturated fat, add to our nation’s expanding waistline. Children snack on Nik-Naks on their way home from school. Parents, themselves with little understanding of the value of nutrition, are unable to pass information on to their children. In fact, 17% of South Africa’s children under nine years old are obese. Not overweight. Not even fat. Obese.

With cost and convenience priorities in the current economic climate, South Africans appear more concerned about their pockets than the size of their waistbands. Many do not understand food labels, or simply ignore them. Rising obesity rates lead to insurance premium hikes and the long-term health effects put pressure on the state health system. Our country simply can’t afford to be this fat.

More alarmingly, South Africa is home to a population of health denialists.

The SAIRR study showed a scant understanding of healthy eating habits. Most considered themselves healthy, completely unaware of the repercussions facing them in later years in the form of heart attacks and strokes. Only 47% recognised the critical importance of physical exercise and unsurprisingly, healthy foods were perceived to be more expensive than their unhealthy counterparts.

The WHO suggests that healthy indigenous foods be promoted as they tend to be cheaper and more culturally acceptable than new foods. This is true for traditional Chinese cuisine, for example, a welcome departure from the less healthy, more commercial ‘western’ style options. However, in the South African instance, traditional fare has become hybridized thanks to the introduction of westernised crops. The old foodways, negatively associated with poverty and social lowliness, are abandoned for higher-status junk food.

Traditional African staples of starch, sugar and meat certainly aren't conducive with a low-calorie diet. I don’t want to imply that traditional food is harmful or devoid of nutritional value; however, the statistics show that it’s not sustainable as an exclusive source of nutrition. 

The concept of traditional (South) African food is a shaky one, rooted in heritage and memory. It is the very stigma of lowliness that has caused a migration from traditional cooking toward the popularised western fast-food diet. So how do we balance tradition with nutrition? How can we rethink our attitudes to food?

We need to talk about obesity. We need to understand why so many of us are fat, to re-evaluate what we’re eating and why we’re eating it. The implementation of awareness programmes in schools and communities, widespread dietary education and healthy eating plans and workshops to promote healthy cooking methods are crucial. As for the availability of unhealthy food and drink in public places like airports, train stations, university campuses and hospitals, it’s time to cut down.

Obesity is an urban pandemic and public health issue that has complex roots in culture, economic status and education. Our junk food nation is a noxious blend of apathy, calories and bad habits, the product of a fickle eating culture. The sooner we can come to a common understanding of what a healthy diet actually means, the quicker we can break our nation’s harmful eating habits. 

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