Kerry Cullinan

Health-E News

SOUTH Africa is a nation of fat women, chubby kids and smokers who pretend they don’t smoke nearly as much as they actually do.

And, if you live in the Western Cape you’re the most at risk of being exposed to smoking on a daily basis.

The province has the worst smoking problem in the country, and those living in rural formal areas (not shacks) were most likely to smoke.

These are some of the findings of the first SA National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (SAHANES), for last year, which was released yesterday.

The survey involved a representative sample of more than 25 000 South Africans countrywide, and was conducted by the Human Sciences Research Council and the Medical Research Council (MRC).

Almost 70 percent of women had dangerously large waists, almost four in 10 (39.2 percent) were obese and a quarter of women were overweight. In comparison, a quarter of men had dangerously large waists, said the HSRC’s Olive Shisana.

Almost one in four girls between the ages of two and five were already overweight or obese, compared with about one in 10 boys.

Compared with a similar survey conducted a decade ago, the rate of overweight children had almost doubled from 10.6 percent to 18.2 percent.

Overweight people are far more likely to suffer from non-communicable diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure, which can cause other complications including strokes and heart problems.

“I have been making a noise about some of these things for a while and some people think this minister is a lunatic of healthy lifestyle. But now I have the scientific evidence to support me,” said Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi.

Not surprisingly, more than half of women over the age of 65 reported suffering from high blood pressure. Almost one in four people aged 55 to 64 reported that they had diabetes, while a further 14 percent were showing signs of diabetes.

High cholesterol, a risk factor for heart disease, was particularly high among people of Asian or Indian origin, with 41 percent of men and 45 percent of women reporting this.

While 16 percent of people admitted to being daily smokers, medical tests showed that more than double that number of men (35.2 percent) and a quarter of women were smokers. The survey did not check people’s blood alcohol levels so it is hard to verify how many are drinkers, but 17 percent of heads of households said there was a “serious” or “very serious” level of alcohol abuse in their household.

Almost half of women and one in three men aged 18 to 40 in urban formal homes were unfit when they did basic step exercises. Coloured women were the nation’s least fit, with 62 percent huffing and puffing after exercise.

Reporting on the “Cinderella of health”, namely mental health, Shisana said 45.3 percent percent of women over the age of 65 and 37.8 percent of men reported experiencing “psychological distress” such as depression and anxiety. The biggest cause was “family distress” while there were also high reported levels of personal assault.

The HSRC said all primary health care facilities should be able to screen people for mental health problems.

In response, Motsoaledi said the “explosion of fast-food outlets in Africa was called development but it is our impending doom”.

When Shisana presented him with a long list of recommendations particularly aimed at getting people to change their behaviour to curb “lifestyle” diseases, Motsoaledi said this was a daunting task.

“It is very difficult to change the behaviour of people with very serious death wishes, for example smokers,” he said.