World Obesity Day: Experts warn of overweight misconceptions in Africa
Many African parents wrongly believe that having overweight children symbolizes affluence in society. Nutritionists are now seeking to educate them on the health risks posed by obesity and being overweight.
Opara Chike, a teacher in one of the Lagos state-owned secondary schools in Ketu — a suburb of Nigeria's commercial center — is not a first-time father. At 32, he has two kids, with the third confirmed to arrive sometime in July this year. Although he is a geology graduate and has taught chemistry, physics, and mathematics since 2016, he wants his son and daughter to put on more weight because he believes chubby-looking kids are well fed. In addition, he is convinced this would improve his social rating as he would be considered rich. (Also read: World Obesity Day 2022: Top foods to shed kilos and keep obesity at bay)
"I wouldn't want the situation where somebody will look at my kids and then want to belittle me," Chike told DW. "So, I would try all I could to ensure that my kids are well-fed, and one of the evidence of such is when they grow chubby. Yes! Somebody cannot be pointing at my kids somewhere with disdain. I will not accept that. So, my kids must grow to represent."
For Chike, "represent" means his children giving him a good social standing due to their big physical appearance. In some parts of Africa, no matter how wealthy parents are, if their children are not obese, they are regarded as poor or stingy.
"I will be proud to say yes, that is my son, my daughter, and when you see them, you will respect me. It shows I am doing well," Chike added.
WHO: Obesity a ticking time bomb
Chike is not the only Nigerian parent harboring such misconceptions on obesity and overweight children. The WHO warned that Africa is already facing a rising problem of obesity in children. For instance, one in eight children in South Africa is now considered overweight. In the last decade, it used to be one in 20 children. In 2019, Africa had 24% of the world's overweight kids aged under five.
The WHO defines obesity and being overweight as having abnormal or excessive fat accumulations that pose a health risk.
"Africa is facing a growing problem of obesity and overweight, and the trends are rising," Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO Regional Director for Africa, said. "This is a ticking time bomb. If unchecked, millions of people, including children, risk living shorter lives under the burden of poor health."Obese children risk major 'adult diseases'
Dr. Lawrence Owino, a University of Nairobi pediatrics lecturer and chairman of Kenya Pediatrics Association told DW that obese children covertly are at high risk of health problems like blockage of breathing, especially when they are asleep at night. He says this causes many problems in their lungs, which can present with pulmonary hypertension — increased pressure within the lungs which could lead to the failure of the lungs and heart. According to Owino, obese children are predisposed to various heart complications in the future.
"This is not healthy. It is associated with health risks and has a lot of social limitations. Some of those children cannot participate adequately in social events with other children."
Apart from the physical consequences, childhood obesity has been linked to adverse outcomes, including poor psychological and educational effects and social inequalities.
Despite these outcomes, being overweight or obese as a child is still celebrated in many African societies. However, medical experts say it is a leading cause of cardiovascular and metabolic diseases, musculoskeletal disorders, other chronic diseases, some cancers, and an increased risk of premature death and disability.
Pre-conditioned for obesity
According to Philip Abiodun, a Professor of Pediatrics and Consultant in Child Health at Nigeria's University of Benin, some mothers feed their babies with too much protein, especially synthesized proteins, making them grow faster and bigger than when fed with breast milk.
In some cases, unborn babies are programmed to become obese adults. Kenyan doctor Awino explains that this can occur when a pregnant woman eats a lot of junk food and too much sugar that floods the baby with loads of calories. As a result, the baby's tissues grow much faster. At the same time, their system gets used to very high sugar intake levels, making the baby's pancreas produce excessive amounts of insulin to deal with excessive sugar and calories.
Upon delivery, the mother would give birth to a huge baby, which will continue to expect extra calories and extra sugar. The pancreas will continue to produce excessive amounts of insulin, especially when there is an excessive amount of food.
Babies in the womb could also be pre-conditioned for obesity when a pregnant woman does not eat at the appropriate time and take in sufficient quantity and quality food. According to Professor Abiodun, babies in such women learn to store food even while in the womb.
Benefits of breastfeeding
Professor Ignatius Onimawo, former president of Nutrition Society of Nigeria, told DW that studies indicate many modern mothers do not exclusively breastfeed their babies for six months or at least four months. Instead, they introduce their babies to infant high-energy and protein-dense formulas. Onimawo stressed the need for nutrition education for African parents.
"The use of infant formula is a major cause of childhood obesity. We need more enlightenment and campaigns to let people know that if you want to avoid infant obesity, the mother must practice exclusive breastfeeding and continue breastfeeding with adequate weaning foods," Onimawo said.
He recommended that such campaigns be taken directly to pregnant women during their antenatal sessions at primary health care centers across various communities and not only on radio and television.
"Everyone goes to primary health care centers, so they are good avenues for the would-be mothers to be educated."
He also suggested taking the campaign to teenagers in secondary schools so they get to know the importance of breastfeeding to prevent childhood obesity.
The WHO recommends adopting a healthy diet by reducing high calories, fats, and sugar consumption, undertaking regular physical activities. The global health body also encourages government policies to help Africans lead healthier lifestyles and diet choices. For example, in April 2018, South Africa introduced a sugar tax to discourage citizens from taking too many sugary drinks.
"We can resolve the crisis because many of the causes of obesity and overweight are preventable and reversible," WHO's Africa director Moeti said.
Edited by: Chrispin Mwakideu