Eating our way to death

2016-04-12 06:00

SOUTH Africa commemorated National Obesity Week recently. Shockingly, the number of people who are overweight and obese in South Africa is rapidly on the rise.

We are the fattest nation in sub-Saharan Africa, as well as on the list of the top 20 fattest nations in the world. No longer is the United States the only icon of excess; we are catching up far too quickly.

Seven out of 10 women and three out of 10 men weigh unhealthily more than they should. Sadly, this alarming trend is not restricted to adults, with a concerning number of children becoming overweight from a young age. According to the South African Medical Research Council, one out of every four girls and one out of every five boys in the two to 14-year age group are overweight or obese.

This trend among our children and adolescents has far-reaching implications, as overweight or obese teenagers are most likely to become overweight and obese adults.

Obesity is linked to a number of chronic diseases such as type two diabetes, heart disease and cancer. It is not simply a matter of the bathroom scale groaning or our clothes no longer fitting comfortably. Mortality rates in South Africa (2012 data) show that diabetes and heart disease are each responsible for more deaths per annum than HIV. Diseases related to high blood pressure are not far behind. It would not be overdramatic to state that our weight has literally become a matter of life and death.

The price of becoming Westernised and following in the footsteps of First World countries has proved too high a price for the sake of our health. As our population forsakes more traditional meals for a Westernised diet, including convenience and processed foods, the nutritional value of our diets has been sacrificed.

Generally speaking, South Africans have been found to eat too much salt, fat, sugar and refined products, while not getting adequate amounts of whole grains, fruits, vegetables and dairy. Our youth are regularly and frequently consuming fast foods, junk food and sweetened beverages, and missing out on vital foods that should be consumed daily such as fruits, vegetables and dairy products.

The Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa states that half the men and two thirds of the women in our nation are physically inactive. This sedentary trend has concerning and severe implications on our health. Less than two thirds of our children engage in any exercise on a weekly basis.

What strikes me most about this alarming data is the potential for us to change the statistics going forward. Adults who are more active and eat healthily most of the time will naturally role model a better lifestyle to the next generation. We cannot hope to improve the health outcomes of our children if we are not prepared to make the appropriate changes in our own behaviour.

Start by assessing where you are at so that you can map the way forward.

• Audit your grocery cupboard. How many sweetened breakfast cereals, refined biscuits, juices, sweets and chocolates are on the shelves? Rather stock up on high-fibre options such as bran-rich cereals, oats, whole-wheat crackers, dried fruit, raw nuts and legumes.

• Audit your lunch box and dinner plate. Half of the meal should be salads or vegetables in various forms. Think coleslaw, beetroot, mixed salad, extra vegetables added into stews and casseroles, lentils added to rice, mashed baked beans used to thicken sauces and gravies. Some simple changes and additions can improve dramatically the nutrition of a regular meal.

• Audit your activity level. Get moving as much as you can. Common advise such as always using the stairs, parking further from the shop entrance and walking to colleagues’ offices to deliver messages rather than e-mailing are worth implementing. In addition to that, try to be more active during your spare time — join a dance class, take the family on a bike ride or play ball games with an obliging four-legged friend.

• Audit you snacks. Use fresh and dried fruits as go-to snacks through the day instead of sweets and other tempting treats.

Changing the state of our nation’s health will not be achieved overnight, but will be impacted radically by each family unit making changes for the better.

• Sharon Hultzer is a consulting dietitian. She can be reached at

The price of becoming Westernised and
following in the footsteps of First World countries has proved too high a price for the sake of our health.

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