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Carst and Walker

‘Nutrition transition’ is making SA fat

KotaAn interesting article in The Star looks at the social and cultural complexities of eating, healthily and otherwise, in South Africa’s rapidly urbanising township areas. Cheap and ubiquitous fast food is a classic side effect of urbanisation – a phenomenon dubbed the “nutrition transition” by public health experts.

Last year, Bataung Matsau lost nearly 28kg. The Pimville, Soweto, resident began running, cycling and following a healthy diet and went from 96.4kg to 68.8kg.

But instead of congratulating him, his neighbours were wary.

“People would ask: ‘Are you okay?’ People would ask my friends: ‘Is Matsau all right?’” he says.

They assumed, wrongly, that his dramatic weight loss was caused by HIV.

Matsau has learnt to ignore this stigma, but it seems that others would rather risk their long-term health than face the rumours.

“People are afraid to lose weight because they may end up being labelled Aids sufferers. But it seems acceptable to suffer from hypertension,” Matsau says. “They don’t realise that with high blood pressure, you may not wake up the next day.”

In addition to hypertension, being overweight contributes to chronic illness such as cardiovascular disease, stroke, cancer and type 2 diabetes.

Yet according to a 2010 study, 78 percent of obese and 52 percent of morbidly obese South Africans consider themselves healthy. Given that most adults in SA are too heavy – 61 percent are overweight or obese – this attitude becomes even more alarming.

So why aren’t more people scrambling to shed excess weight?

SA’s obesity rates are rapidly gaining on industrialised superpowers such as the US and the UK.

Obesity is no longer a rich man’s problem. While it was once considered a luxury to spend money on overeating, it is now considered a luxury to spend money – and time – on losing weight. Fat wallets help make skinny people.

“I used to think, people with money, they can worry about weight loss. In the township, why would I want to get skinny? People will think I’m poor,” Matsau says.

“Being poor is already a forced diet. And if you exercise, you’re wasting all of that energy. We need to harness it.”

Socio-economic barriers to weight loss are pervasive. Gym memberships are too expensive and inconvenient for many.

Doctor’s visits can also incur costs, so unhealthy people may avoid check-ups altogether.

Beryl Chaka, a diabetic, was prescribed a healthy diet by her doctors. She does not follow it because the recommended foods are too expensive, she says.

When magwinyas (fat cakes) sell for only a rand at every corner, it is no surprise that nutritious foods don’t provide enough bang for the buck.

Cheap and ubiquitous fast food is a classic side effect of rapid urbanisation.

This phenomenon has been dubbed the “nutrition transition” by public health experts.

Many countries in political transition have moved from hunger straight to obesity, with significant overlap – obese people are often simultaneously malnourished because of poor diets full of empty calories.

A 2008 study revealed that 84 percent of elderly women in Sharpeville were obese despite being chronically food insecure, according to an African Food Security Urban Network report.

As more people move into urban areas, work faraway jobs and make more money, they opt for convenience over nutrition.

“The parents don’t cook for kids. They give them money to buy food,” says cobbler Jimmy Nyambi.

Nyambi’s children dislike the cabbage and spinach he boils for dinner.

“Generally, people don’t like to eat healthy food. Junk food seems to be tastier,” Matsau says. “The other morning, I saw a guy going to buy a kota.”

Kotas (pictured above) – quarter-loaves of white bread filled with processed food such as chips, cheese and polony – can be purchased for as little as R8. Fast food chains are also growing in popularity, and the “brand names” attract diners.

To top it off, urbanisation diminishes physical activity…..

The Star: Read the full article

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