Obesity pandemic requires urgent intervention in South Africa

Alarmingly, 800 million people around the world are classified as obese.

World Obesity Day, which takes place on 4 March 2021, is an annual initiative that aims to raise awareness around this issue and improve our understanding regarding the causes of obesity.

According to Dr Riekie Smit, a medical practitioner from Pretoria with a special interest in weight management, South Africa has alarmingly high rates of adult obesity.

South Africans at risk

More than half of the female population and over a quarter of the male population are obese, and up to 70% of the female population either overweight or obese.

South Africa is rated in the top 3 countries in Africa in terms of adult obesity rates, with no signs of this abating. Even worse, our childhood obesity rates continue to rise.

“According to Diabetes South Africa, 20% of girls younger than 9 years are overweight and 13,5% of school-going children are overweight or obese, which is higher than the 10% global rate,” she says.

Defining obesity

Obesity is defined as having a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or more. You can calculate your BMI by dividing your weight in kilogram (kg) by your height in metres squared (m2). BMI calculators are also easily accessible online.

“This should not be the only guideline used, as your waist circumference is another really important measure of your risk for health problems. A high-risk waistline is over 80cm for women or over 94cm for men, and this indicates an increased risk for high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and other conditions,” Dr Smit says.

Major comorbidities

Diabetes, which is one of the conditions associated with obesity, is now the ‘largest killer’ of South African women according to Statistics SA research.

Type 2 diabetes also increases your risk of severe illness from COVID-19. In fact, adults of any age with certain underlying medical conditions are at increased risk for severe illness from the virus that causes COVID-19, including being overweight and obese.

The main reason for this is the comorbidities associated with obesity,” explains Dr Smit, who says that she is often surprised at how many obese patients are not aware of the other medical conditions that they already have.

“Obesity, as well as its comorbid diseases, affects one’s immunity and your body’s ability to recover from illnesses. Obesity is associated with a depressed immune system and chronic low-grade inflammation in your body,” she says.

Researchers have established the likelihood that the presence of excess fat or adipose tissue could increase transmission of the virus between organs and could possibly increase viral load and drive disease severity.

Health hazard

Obesity is associated with reduced cardiac and respiratory function and kidney pathology. All these and the other comorbid conditions gives rise to the poor outcome that many obese patients have when infected with COVID-19,” Dr Smit explains.

Worse yet, obese people generally seem to respond poorly to vaccinations and antiviral treatments.

Furthermore, obesity increases your risk for numerous other health conditions, many of which can be fatal. Overall, obesity is estimated to increase the risk of dying from heart conditions by four times, and doubles your risk of cancer-related death.

“For persons with severe obesity (BMI >40), life expectancy is reduced by as much as 20 years in men and 5 years in women,” she says.

Time to act

According to Dr Smit, this disaster requires urgent intervention.

“Numerous scientific studies have revealed that most of the obesity related medical conditions improve significantly with a weight loss of as little as 5% to 10% of your body weight. This should really motivate anyone with health or weight problems,” she adds.

Dr Smit advises anyone with weight issues to educate themselves and the people close to them about how weight issues affect health. This includes education about:

  • Why maintaining a healthy weight is important.
  • What is the importance of a healthy diet.
  • Understanding nutrition, portion sizes and meal composition.
  • The benefits of regular exercise.

It is also important to know about available assistance to  help with losing weight, including possible weight loss programmes, medications, apps and what services are available to assist you.

“Educate yourself, write down the steps, have a goal, and then start following the steps. You will also need help and advice from those with experience,” she says.

Dr Smit advises those with obesity issues to monitor their progress. If you don’t experience any changes, get help rather than giving up.

If you are worried about your weight, or for more information, speak to your doctor for advice about how to lose or manage your weight.

Go to www.ilivelite.co.za for more information to check your BMI and weight circumference and get access to professionally developed dietary guidelines. which feature different meal plans to suit various lifestyles and energy requirements.

Author: Pedro van Gaalen

When he’s not writing about sport or health and fitness, Pedro is probably out training for his next marathon or ultra-marathon. He’s worked as a fitness professional and as a marketing and comms expert. He now combines his passions in his role as managing editor at Fitness magazine.

When he's not writing about sport or health and fitness, Pedro is probably out training for his next marathon or ultra-marathon. He's worked as a fitness professional and as a marketing and comms expert. He now combines his passions in his role as managing editor at Fitness magazine.

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