Rapid and increased urbanisation is associated with lifestyle changes such as decreased physical activity. This is often accompanied by increased intake of high caloric fast foods and sugar-sweetened beverages. This combination has contributed to the rising burden of obesity in towns and cities in developing countries.
Obesity in Africa
To understand the scale of the obesity problem in Africa, A research analysed demographic and health survey data from 24 African countries over 25 years. Such data are collected every five years in the developing countries. The research found that not only was obesity on the rise, but that it is high among urban African women aged between 15 and 49 years.
The analysis shows increases in obesity levels in all 24 countries over the 25 year period. The increases were statistically significant in 17 countries.
The study found that four countries had an obesity prevalence that was above 20% while the rest ranged between 10% and 19% among urban women of reproductive age in the countries studied.
Comparing these data with earlier surveys it is clear that obesity levels among urban women have worsened in the past two-and-a-half decades.
The study found significant differences between African countries. In the latest survey, Egypt has the highest prevalence of obesity by far. Two out of every five Egyptians (39%) are obese, followed by Ghana at 22%.
Egypt and Ghana also experienced a significant increase in obesity over the past 25 years — from 34% to 39% (13% increase) in Egypt and 8% to 22% in Ghana (65% increase).
The increase in obesity doubled in Kenya, Benin, Niger, Rwanda, Ivory Coast and Uganda, while Zambia, Burkina Faso, Mali, Malawi and Tanzania experienced a three-fold increase.
Why Obesity is a Problem
A person is considered to be obese if they weigh more than 20% over their ideal weight. It is more precisely defined as body mass index of 30 or more.
Obesity is a serious public health problem because it significantly increases the risk of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, type-2 diabetes, hypertension, coronary heart diseases as well as certain cancers. It also puts considerable strain on healthcare and social resources.
For women of reproductive age, the consequences of being obese are more serious. Studies have shown that maternal obesity is bad for both the mother and the unborn child. It can lead to higher rates of miscarriage, still-births and congenital anomalies.
Obesity can also result in gestational diabetes, which is marked by high blood sugar levels during pregnancy. These usually disappear after delivery.
Another inherent risk is pre-eclampsia, a condition that affects some pregnant women and usually sets in 20 weeks into pregnancy.
Obesity during pregnancy can also affect health later for both mother and child, including increased risk of heart disease, hypertension and diabetes. Children of obese mothers also have a risk of future obesity.
What can be Done?
Given the magnitude of the increase in obesity levels among urban women in the countries studied, there is need to take urgent steps to address the problem.
Addressing obesity will be an important step towards curbing the surge of lifestyle diseases that the continent is experiencing. It’s estimated that their toll is likely to surpass infectious diseases by 2030.
This calls for deliberate interventions and strategies geared towards encouraging people living in urban areas to adopt healthy diets, increase physical activity and reduce weight.