Obesity may not be the first nutrition concern that springs to mind when it comes to Africa, but FAO director of nutrition Anna Lartey told us it was an emerging threat that must be considered within holistic nutrition strategies.
“When we think of sub-Saharan Africa we think of undernutrition and the malnourished, but for several countries for example places like South Africa, Kenya, Egypt, Ghana overweight and obesity are on the rise.”
This posed obvious new challenges in non-communicable conditions like diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease, which increased health care costs for society and reduced quality of life for the individual.
Organisations like the FAO are having to rethink their approach to deal with this 'double burden’ of disease - a juxtaposition that could be seen in the same countries, communities and even households.
“Now even in developing countries, where for a long time we’ve been working on addressing undernutrition, while many conditions are improving, we are seeing problems of overweight and obesity on the rise,” said Lartey, who was formerly a professor in nutrition at the University of Ghana.
In 2014, over 1.9 billion adults aged 18 years and older were overweight – that’s 39% of the world’s adult population. Of these over 600 million – 13% of the world’s adult population – were obese, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
The WHO says low- and middle-income countries were no exception to this ‘globesity’ epidemic.
“While they continue to deal with the problems of infectious disease and under-nutrition, they are experiencing a rapid upsurge in non-communicable disease risk factors such as obesity and overweight, particularly in urban settings,” it writes on its fact sheets.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) expects childhood overweight and obesity prevalence in Africa to reach 12.7% in 2020, up from 8.5% in 2010.
Despite this Lartey said the issue was still relatively neglected in Africa.
“It is a neglected issue and something we tried at the conference [FAO’s Second International Conference on Nutrition in Rome] last year to bring up – that we should not close our eyes to that [obesity] problem as we are looking at the undernutrition problem, we should really tackle the two so we don’t create another problem.
"And this you can see with a lot of the Latin American countries, where undernutrition has been substantially reduced but now they are facing the other type of malnutrition which is obesity – it’s on the rise.”
What was needed, she said, was a "food systems approach" to tackle the issue of malnutrition in all its forms.
Bitter sweet rise
Last month researchers from the University of the Witwatersrand and the Human Sciences Research Council in South Africa and the University of Queensland in Australia warned sugary drink consumption was one of the main culprits for the rise in South Africa.
Their study predicted a 2.4% annual growth in sugar-sweetened beverage sales alongside population growth and ageing would result in an additional 1.28 million obese adults in the country by 2017, 22% of
which would be due to increased sugar-sweetened beverage consumption alone.
Call for action
This predicted escalation spurred the launch of the African Centre for Obesity Prevention (ACTION) last month as a hub of obesity information and research in Africa.
The researchers behind ACTION say obesity should be a national priority in South Africa in particular as the most obese country in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Dr Moji Musa of the Wits Developmental Pathways for Health Research Unit said at the launch: “With South African children consuming 75 g of sugar per day, three times the daily recommendation by the American Heart Association (AHA), there is a need to focus on restricting excessive sugar consumption.”
The centre came as part of the South African Department of Health’s target to reduce the number of people who are obese or overweight in the country by 10% by 2020.
One option would be to follow in the footsteps of Mexico and impose a so-called ‘sin tax’ on unhealthy products like sugary drinks.
Yet Lartey had doubts this was the way to go: "Although it can be considered that will not entirely solve the problem because those who can afford will continue to patronise such foods. Other measures can also be considered for example, adequate labelling of packaged foods to enable the consumer makes informed decisions about the nutritional value of the food."