2 in every 3 South Africans are overweight

South Africans are a nation of people in denial when it comes to perceptions of how overweight, unfit and unhealthy they are.

In a recent national health survey measuring the health of the nation, it was found that 74% of South Africans think their fellow citizens are overweight, while only 34% of people considered themselves as overweight or obese.

The national health survey was commissioned by global research-based healthcare company, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and conducted by independent marketing insight consultancy, Added Value.

The survey found that 61%, or nearly two in every three South Africans are overweight, obese or morbidly obese. These figures on the growing size of our population are similar to those of the Medical Research Council (MRC), which also conducted a study in 2003 on overweight and obesity in South Africa.

South Africans still think they’re healthy

The MRC report found that 56% of women and 29% of men are overweight. Nearly 10% of men and 24% of women have a Body Mass Index (BMI) of more than 30.

The GSK national health survey also found that South Africans believe they are healthy, even when they are overweight and obese:

  • 78% of obese people think they are somewhat healthy/very healthy;
  • 52% of morbidly obese people think they are somewhat healthy or very healthy;
  • 42% have no health concerns; and
  • Only 47% recognise that exercise/physical fitness is critical.

GSK recently commissioned the national consumer health survey to assess certain facts about our nation as they relate to general health and wellness, lifestyle, family, nutritional understanding, local socio-political impact and psychological barriers to achieving better health.

Misunderstanding about obese vs. overweight

Jonathan Girling, Vice President, Consumer Healthcare at GSK, says the aim of the survey was “to measure how healthy South Africans are as a nation”.

“As a new entrant into the weight loss category in South Africa, the decision to embark on a National Health Survey was essential for us,” says Girling.

“Not only has it given us insight into the attitudes and behaviours of people on health matters, but a broader context to the overweight and obesity epidemic we’re facing as a nation.”

The GSK national health survey also found:

  • 60% of obese (and 62% of morbidly obese) people consider themselves as only being overweight;
  • 49% of South Africans don’t exercise; and
  • 71% of them have never been on diet.

Lifestyle, food, poverty and demographics play a role in the weight of the nation, the survey reveals. Capetonians are the worst affected with 72% of them overweight, followed by people living in Pretoria (68%), Johannesburg (59%) and Durban (52%).

A total of 65% of people interviewed have the perception that healthy food is more expensive than unhealthy food. However, people consider the food they buy as being healthy and most people claim to shop for healthy food 52% of the time.

The “denialism” continues when it comes to food labels: 66% understand food labels but only 33% consult them.

Proactive approach needed

At least 60 South Africans (three people every hour) die from heart attacks and strokes every day, according to the MRC.  In a 2003 WHO report, statistics further confirm that overweight and obesity pose a major risk for chronic diseases, including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease (CVD), hypertension and stroke and certain forms of cancer.

Additional data from the MRC taken from participants in the age group 60-69 years indicates that a normal mid-life BMI has significant health benefits.

Dr Jeff King, a leading Johannesburg-based cardiologist, calls for a proactive approach to leading a healthy life by watching your weight, eating a balanced diet and maintaining a regular exercise programme.

“Obesity is a major factor of cardiovascular disease. Excess weight puts pressure on the heart and increases blood pressure,” King says. He warns that the heavier you become, the lower you drive your life expectancy.

“In five to 15 years an obese person will develop type 2 diabetes. Smoking increases the risk of cardiovascular disease even more because it doesn’t allow protection from blood clotting. Clotting causes blocked arteries that will result in a stroke or heart attack.”

SA kids also obese

But it’s not only adults who are obese. 17% of South Africa’s children aged one to nine years are obese. This is further backed up by research from the GSK national health survey which found that 23% of people don’t know what their children eat during the day.

“Healthy foods, healthy eating habits and exercise should be promoted to children through special education and awareness campaigns in schools,” says registered dietician Celynn Erasmus.

“Unhealthier choices seem more convenient and readily available, especially for people on the run. More ventures to promote healthier food choices should be encouraged and supported by the government and South African business.”

The survey also reveals that in the tough economic climate:

  • 39% of South Africans look at cost when purchasing food;
  • 87% eat a home cooked dinner; and
  • 46% feel obesity will impact South Africa economically.

For years anecdotal evidence has been building up to show that South Africans have serious problems with being overweight, obese and morbidly obese. Now there is hard empirical evidence that proves beyond doubt that we are already facing an epidemic and denying these facts could result in severe economic and social repercussions.

Source: GlaxoSmithKline, Health24, September 2010

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