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Big is beautiful, say fat South Africans

An oversupply of food is the reason for burgeoning obesity rather than inactive lifestyles - a new study suggests. File Photo: Finbarr O'Reilly

An oversupply of food is the reason for burgeoning obesity rather than inactive lifestyles - a new study suggests. File Photo: Finbarr O'Reilly

Published Oct 27, 2012


Johannesburg - South Africans are getting fatter, according to the latest information released by global pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline this month, which showed 61 percent of the country’s adults are obese.

Also, 75 percent of South African women have been reported overweight.

Although obesity is a global phenomenon, South African cultures tolerate, even welcome, an abundance of body fat.

“About 78 percent of obese and about 52 percent of morbidly obese people in South Africa consider themselves healthy,” said Graham Anderson, principal officer at Profmed medical scheme.

According to Anderson, the definition of overweight is if a person has a BMI between 25 and 30. Obese would be a BMI between 30 and 40, while a BMI over 40 is defined as morbidly obese.

“BMI can only be calculated for people between 18 and 65, because people younger than 18 are still growing. People older than 65 generally experience diminishing height,” he said.

Anderson is not convinced that the nation’s obesity can be attributed to cultural practices.

“A large number of South Africans have adopted the Westernised way of living. They tend to eat more like the Western world and, in large quantities, these foods tend to exacerbate the problem of weight,” he said.

While obesity in itself is a chronic condition, it also causes and aggravates other conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes and asthma.

In addition, according to an article published by the Daily Mail in the UK, being obese or overweight heightens the risk of at least seven types of cancer, including breast, bowel, pancreatic, womb, kidney and gall-bladder cancer.

Academics from the World Cancer Research Fund say that excess fat is the second-biggest cause of cancer after smoking.

Mark van der Heever, provincial health department spokesman, said the country should focus on health, not weight, since the issue was a health one.

“We know that obesity is a risk factor for chronic diseases, and we are addressing it as part of healthy lifestyles,” he said.

However, Nothemba Lusase, a 32-year-old Xhosa woman, wasn’t convinced that African bodies have been westernised, nor that being “meaty” posed a health risk.

“The bigger you are, the more attractive you are. A woman looks nicer with flesh on her bones,” the local car guard said.

Lusase believed that women should be fuller-figured, because it’s what they were created for – for child-bearing and playing a nurturing role.

“Clothes fit well on your body when you are bigger, they don’t hang off you like a hanger,” she says.

According to Lusase, Xhosa culture required women to be fuller-figured, and she said Xhosa men were more physically attracted to that body type. “I definitely think that true Xhosa men are attracted to bigger women.”

There’s nothing wrong with being fuller-figured, she said, and “I don’t think being big is a health risk – it’s our culture”.

Nosizwe Dilima, a 22-year-old from Langa, didn’t agree. “It’s a generational thing. I think that our generation of Xhosa men prefer a slim girl with meat in the right places,” she said.

Profmed’s Anderson encourages controlled exercise and dieting and gentle walking before going to the gym.

“Like any chronic condition, getting obesity under control is a process that needs to be done cautiously, within the ambits of what your body can handle. Basically, your body would need to be burning up more calories than you are consuming,” he said.

“If you do join the gym, you would need to be guided by a personal trainer so that you don’t over-exert yourself in an effort to get the condition under control,” Anderson said.

The most important step in treating obesity however, is having regular consultations and check-ups with your doctor and dietician to ensure that your body is undergoing a safe transition.

Saturday Star

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