Is Africa Rising or Widening?

Is Africa Rising or Widening?

A growing middle class with higher disposable income and more money to spend on food means Africa isn’t just rising — it’s also widening — in the waistline, that is.

Africa has long been associated with malnutrition and food insecurity, but over-nutrition has been slowly creeping into the equation.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, 23 percent of adult men and 30 percent of adult women are overweight or obese, said Timothy Armstrong with World Health Organization’s Department of Chronic Diseases and Health Promotion, as reported by Radio Netherlands Worldwide – Africa.

“The expectations are that in the next 20 years, these numbers will double,” Armstrong said.

A continent on the ascent economically but struggling with inequality now has to battle two extremes: malnutrition in famine-stricken areas and obesity in urban areas due to changing social factors.

“Obesity is on the rise given primarily the ‘westernization’ of our diet,” said Njoga Njihia, a Nairobi-based researcher in non-communicable diseases, in an interview with AFKInsider. “Refined foods cooked with fats all add to the pandemic. With increasing focus on white collar jobs, the push to sedentary lifestyle and motorized movement further worsens this situation. Less exercise and less physical activity allow obesity to flourish.”

Africans are getting less exercise, resulting in weight-related issues, said Wellington Wesonga, a trainer at Turtle Dove Fitness Center in Nairobi, in an interview with AFKInsider.

“Africans, and more so Kenyans who I interact with, although privy to the health benefits of a good workout, simply do not work out,” he said. “Many of those who do come in to work out lack consistency and eventually drop their gym membership. It is a trend I get to see all year round.”

Wesonga added that gym attendance drops towards the end of the week, particularly Fridays and Saturdays when most of the gym’s clients who are middle-class earners go out to enjoy the occasional beers and nyama choma (roast meat).

“Alcohol, in addition to the empty calories it adds to the equation, also affects the cells at a molecular level, specifically mitochondria – the factory of the cell,” Njihia said. “Think of wet charcoal being burned; the efficacy of fuel oxidation at the cellular level predisposes to fatty change.”

Africans are generally more prone to obesity than Caucasians due to a genetic factor in their DNA, Njihia said.

“If you subject an African to the same diet as a Caucasian he or she will get fatter,” Njihia said. “The trait to store nutrients that were gleaned from hunting and gathering is what led to the survival of our (African) predecessors. This was passed on to the current generation.”

Some African cultures value fat women because big is considered beautiful, reports the African Population and Health Research Center.

“In Africa there are more overweight women than men,” said Jaap Seidell, professor of nutrition and health at the VU University Amsterdam in the Netherlands, as reported by Radio Netherlands Worldwide.

“Traditionally, larger women are appreciated for ensuring offspring. In some cultures young women are overfed to become suitable wives for their future husbands,” Seidell said.

In some regions, women don’t want to lose weight because people will think they are sick, Seidell said. For example, in some South African townships, half of the women are overweight and the other half are HIV infected. To avoid being associated with HIV, overweight women would never consider a diet.

The annual healthcare cost of obesity in the U.S. has doubled in less than a decade and may be as high as $147 billion a year, according to research by RTI International, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.