Nearly 80% of women in SA are obese, say medical experts: How can we change the narrative in treating obesity?

South Africans struggle with obesity, and it isn’t good for their health. Picture: Tania Dimas/ Pixabay

South Africans struggle with obesity, and it isn’t good for their health. Picture: Tania Dimas/ Pixabay

Published Mar 1, 2023


We know weight is a contentious issue and the narrative around it remains the same throughout the world. Most people do not understand that obesity is a health problem just like having chronic pain, for instance.

While the first thing that many may think when it comes to obesity would be, “to just stop eating, or eat healthily, you just need to exercise and stop being lazy.” The Centres for Disease Control notes that several variables, including behaviour, genetics, and taking specific drugs, can lead to excessive weight gain.

This indicates that obesity is a multifaceted issue that isn't just made worse by eating food; but by our relationship with food, whether you eat to satisfy hunger, satisfy cravings, or hormonal control of appetite.

Plus, some of us already have diabetes, high cholesterol, and other health issues due to our current lifestyles, the culture we have created around alcohol, and our diet culture, which is characterised by an excess of meat and a lack of vegetables, and restrictive eating for some which manifests in unhealthy eating disorders.

Eating fattening foods to satisfy cravings can lead to all sorts of health problems. Picture: Pixabay

What’s the burden of obesity?

The fat cells that make up visceral fat (umkhaba), which surrounds the organs, produce chemicals and hormones that can be harmful to the body.

Obesity and overweight have negative effects on health since they can lead to type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disorders, and mental problems including severe depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses, as well as physical symptoms such as body aches.

The South African healthcare system is already in ICU, struggling with structural problems, a lack of funds, inadequate resources, and a rise in the prevalence of diseases.

With approximately 80% of South African women and 31% of South African males being overweight or obese, South Africans are among the world's most overweight population.

It is reasonable to believe that the healthcare system may easily collapse if factors under our control are not addressed, i.e. explaining why obesity is a chronic disease and not a minor aesthetic issue, but rather a serious medical condition that needs medical attention.

It’s simple really, our health is heavily dependent on how we treat our bodies. But sometimes it’s not that black and white.

Addressing the media on Driving Change in obesity, endocrinologist, Dr Sindeeb Bhana said: “There are more people dying of diabetes-related deaths than malaria, HIV, and TB put together, this is an apparent unfair proportion of attention in disease management.”

He adds that we constantly ask ourselves, "Why are people fat?" Perhaps we should be rationalising these fights differently.

First off, the majority of those who struggle with obesity and overweight issues are typically those who are already struggling financially. Take (Litha), for example, who must get up at 4am to take three taxis to work and arrive home at 7pm, too exhausted to cook while the lights are out due to load shedding.

You get the grim reality that South Africans face.

What can I do?

However, there are a few very effective things that we can do as a people to be proactive about our well-being.

As a society we can encourage physical activity, corporate South Africa can introduce wellness days in their companies to encourage employees to be physically active, and promote walking to work or to school.

Bhana asked the following question of the medical community: "If we as healthcare professionals are aware of the problems associated with obesity, why are we still ignoring them?“

He mentioned the fact that patients and medical practitioners do not discuss weight loss 90% of the time during the consultation.

“10 thousand steps a day is the start, further the government should start subsidising food with proteins, and also work in changing the social paradigms associated with obesity,” said Bhana.

What impact does weight loss have on general health?

When you lose 10% of your weight, say from 90 kg to 80, your active role in reducing a few kilos is quite effective because the weight loss is similar to the strongest blood pressure medication. Meaning that when you lose 10% of your body weight, your blood pressure can drop by 20%.

Your fasting glucose ( your blood sugar levels before you eat) goes down by 50%.

Your cholesterol will drop by 30%. The numbers may seem overwhelming, but for your health, they indicate a lower chance of cardiovascular death, heart attacks, strokes, and the need for surgical interventions.

Additionally, this can also decrease your risk of arthritis and cancer.

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