Warning labels on unhealthy food one of the strategies government wants to introduce to reduce obesity rates
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The Covid-19 pandemic has put obesity in the spotlight as obese patients are prone to coronavirus complications.
“The National Institute For Communicable Diseases (NICD) Covid-19 weekly sentinel hospital surveillance reports attest to the fact that obesity is associated with the severity of Covid-19 and severely obese persons are more likely to be admitted to acute and critical care than patients who are in a normal weight range,” the Department of Health explained to The Saturday Star this week.
But even without the novel coronavirus, those suffering from the complex disease involving an excessive amount of body fat, run the risk of suffering from other health complications, including heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and certain cancers.
As the nation commemorates World Obesity Day this week, the Department of Health has a project in the pipelines which it hopes will aid in the fight against the condition.
“The department is planning on introducing warning labels on unhealthy foods to contribute towards promotion of healthy diets in South Africa,” Rebone Ntsie, the director of nutrition at the department.
She explained a research study was commissioned to test the potential effectiveness of warning labels to be used on the packaging of foods and drinks and to determine the most effective warning label that will be easily understood by consumers.
“The research is completed and the report will be shared with stakeholders in due course.”
While the country’s takeaway culture, a busy and stressful lifestyle and the high prices of healthy food have been blamed for the nation’s high obesity rate, there is also a belief that more education on the matter is desperately needed.
The department estimates 68% of women and 31% of men in SA are either overweight or obese.
“Obesity is highest among older women, but even 40% of young women aged 15-24 are overweight or obese,” said Ntsie.
In addition, 13% of adults worldwide are considered obese with obesity being the cause of premature death of 4.7 million people in 2017. Global obesity rates have tripled since 1975.
Ntsie said fast food franchises contributed to the nation’s obesity rate.
“Although there is no national study that has been conducted to determine the impact that the abundance of local and international fast food franchises has had on obesity in SA, numerous studies have found that obesity is linked to the number of fast food outlets in a neighbourhood.”
She said Gauteng was highly obesogenic, particularly in impoverished communities where there were more fast food outlets compared to more affluent areas.
“Fast food outlets, small shops and restaurants play an important role in day-to-day provisioning among the urban poor in Gauteng, with 55 per cent of households sourcing food from these outlets at least once a week or more often, especially in the inner city.”
The department said obesity rates have increased as a result of the notion that healthy food was more expensive.
“Generally, junk foods and takeaways seem to be cheaper than healthy foods, but junk foods and takeaways have high levels of added sugars, sodium, saturated fats and refined carbohydrates. Research has connected these nutrients of concern to increased obesity and non-communicable diseases such diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular diseases and cancer.
“Therefore, if the medical costs incurred in treating diseases in the long run are considered, this narrative changes completely.”
She said the preparation of a well balanced home cooked meal could be more affordable and nutritious.
“The cost of buying takeaways for the family can be much more than preparing home cooked meals and with careful planning and knowledge, it is possible to cook a healthy meal in very little time.”
In a bid to provide affordable and healthy meal options to South Africa, local food brand Go-Lo was recently launched.
Its products, which consist of core food items such as bread and cereals as well as smoothies, wraps, pizza bases and pitas, were designed with taste in mind but it also offers healthy alternatives.
The Go-Lo items are made from a variety of healthy ingredients such as almonds, flaxseed, sunflower seeds and oats, which all offer health benefits.
“Go-Lo was started to help people with diabetes and people with weight issues,” said founder Yusuf Cassim.
“So far it has been well received and people who have tried it not only love the products, but feel it works for them and seeing results is what counts.”
While his range might be considered more expensive, he argued it was because the ingredients cost more and offered more health benefits.
“Don't compare health products with your standard wheat-dense breads because they are completely different in composition and benefit.
“I can guarantee that, because of the ingredients used in our products, a person will need to eat less than what they are used to. They will get filled much quicker. They will need to eat less often as they will stay full for longer.”