The state of our weight

Behind the counter at Subjee’s Take-Aways in Noordgesig, Joburg, Gabida Subjee fries “slap chips” and fatcakes while her husband, Chris, watches over their three-month-old daughter.

Subjee’s menu may be a heart attack waiting to happen – but it’s fast, cheap and filling.

The fatcakes sell for R1 a pop, and the house specialty – bunny chow made with half a loaf of white bread stuffed with chips – is a best seller at just R8.

The Subjees, who set up shop three months ago, are typical new fast-food entrepreneurs. Their takeaway place is a corrugated-iron kiosk in a friend’s front yard, opening onto on a busy street in this suburb on the edge of Soweto.

Business is brisk, thanks to the passing trade – school children on their way home and local residents only too happy to have a ready-made, inexpensive food source on their doorstep.

Welcome to South Africa’s “nutritional desert”. This is a term coined by health experts to describe areas where poor communities without access to cheap, healthy food opt instead for fast foods that may leave them feeling satisfied, but at risk of obesity and the growing list of fatal and chronic diseases that go with being fat.

At the top of the fatal list are heart attacks, strokes and diabetes.

“Heart attacks and strokes kill three South Africans every hour,” says Jay Naidoo, chairperson of the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition.

Simply put, this nutritional desert – ironically overflowing with food – is a looming catastrophe for the country’s health.

As obesity starts to rival all other diseases for No 1 killer status in Africa, South Africans are literally staggering under their own weight.

The figures tell a frightening story:
» 61% of all South Africans are overweight or obese; as are
» 70% of women over 35;
» 59% of black women 15 years and older; and
» 55% of white men 15 years and older .
» 25% of teens and 17% of children under nine years are overweight or obese.

So how did fit nation turn into fat nation?

The roots of this health problem – which, coupled with malnutrition, costs the country R16 billion a year in lost productivity and healthcare – are complex. But they lie partly in our transition to democracy.

Studies have shown that countries in political transition are prone to obesity because of environmental, socio-economic and lifestyle changes.
Health experts call it our “nutritional transition”.

Dramatic lifestyle shifts followed on the heels of the hard-won freedoms of 1994. Millions of rural South Africans upped sticks and moved into towns and cities. A new urban, aspirational middle class – with ready cash, office jobs and easy access to fast food – was born.

Home cooking and exercise went out of style, to be replaced by buckets of battered chicken, business lunches and couch time with the TV.

“We’re in a transition from poverty to economic development,” says Dr Thandi Puoane of the University of the Western Cape’s school of public health.

“People drink Coke and eat KFC and they think it’s hip and cool.”

Says Naidoo: “People are eating larger quantities of cheap, poor quality food that fills their stomachs but leaves the body without the critical micro-nutrients (such as calcium, vitamins, iron and magnesium).”

The migration of South Africans from rural to urban areas has been a key factor in the nation’s radical change of lifestyle habits.

Twenty years ago, restricted by apartheid laws, just 10% of black South Africans lived in urban areas. Today, more than 56% do.

Alison Feeley, a scientist at the Medical Research Council, says this massive shift to a fast-paced urban life has resulted in dietary patterns shifting just as dramatically from “traditional foods to fast foods”.

Wage earners now spend more money on high-fat fast foods and cold drinks and enjoy the luxury of less manual work, says Professor Salome Kruger, an obesity expert at North West University.
“Generally, urban dwellers are fatter than rural people because they have a higher income, fast food on tap and less need to do physical work,” Kruger says.
New city slickers find that, for the first time, they can afford to buy their dinner and eat in restaurants.

A recent study found that 14.7% of all Gauteng residents consumed fast food at least twice a week.

But contrary to popular myth, obesity is not a “rich man’s disease”.

Indeed, the most affluent urbanites can get into their SUVs and drive to gym or to Woolies food hall where, for a price, they can load up their trolleys with fresh, top-quality groceries – from free-range chickens to organic lemons.

This means, says Kruger, that “the highest income earners are thinner”.

But for your average city dweller – earning money, but not necessarily enough to own a car to get them out to the major supermarket malls – food is where you find it.

Typically, this is in small corner shops selling a limited, and often more expensive, range of fresh foods. Fruit and veg can be hard to find among the toothpaste and toilet paper spaza staples.

“R15!” It’s taxi fare from Orlando to the Pick n Pay in Soweto’s Maponya Mall – and it was 25-year-old road worker Lindiwe Xorine’s reply when City Press asked her how far it was to the nearest supermarket.

Swinging a two-litre Coke bottle, she and fellow road construction worker Winlove Mashiya (25) were taking a break from the blistering heat.

“Eish, we drink lots of Coke, but we mix it with water,” says Mashiya.

They look fit, though – digging a new road keeps them in shape. Neither of them sounds surprised about the extent of South Africa’s collective weight problem.

“Oh yes, the young ones today are much more fat than when we were growing up,” says Xorine.

“It’s all this junk food they’re eating. From the age of eight, you see them, they’re beginning to get fat.”

Erna Soltan (44), owner of Erna’s Corner Shop in Noordgesig,

agrees: “Parents on their way to take toddlers to crèche stop here and buy the young ones R10 worth of sweets.

Sometimes I tell them to buy the kid some fruit.”
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