The eating epidemic

The eating epidemic

Think South Africans are slim and trim? Think again. We are one of the most obese nations on earth. Think it’s a “rich” thing? Think again … VITTORIO BOLLO reveals some fat truths about the modern person’s eating affliction.

“By the year 2000, there were more adults with obesity than adults who were underweight, taking the world as a whole.” That opening line of the excellent book Globesity by Delpeuch, Maire et al made such a huge impression on me that I’ve used it as the opening line of this article. In a world where so much social activism, international aid and charity work is (rightly) aimed at starvation and people going hungry, it was a revelation to learn that obesity is, in fact, an even greater ill affecting humanity’s health.

“Obesity has reached epidemic proportions globally, with more than one billion adults overweight, at least 300 million of them clinically obese, and is a major contributor to the global burden of chronic disease and disability,” stated the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 2004. When one considers that, according to Globesity, over 850 million people still go hungry every day, it puts the issue of obesity, to which even greater numbers are attributed globally, into perspective

As defined by the respected health website, WedMD, obesity is an excess proportion of total body fat. A person is considered obese when their weight is 20 percent or more above normal weight. The most common measure of obesity is the body mass index or BMI. A person is considered overweight if their BMI is between 25 and 29,9, and obese if their BMI is over 30. Beyond obesity there is what is termed morbid (or “massive”) obesity, which, according to the same website, is when a person “is either 50 to 100 percent over normal weight, more than 100 pounds [roughly 50 kgs] over normal weight, has a BMI of 40 or higher, or is sufficiently overweight to severely interfere with health or normal function.” These figures have also been accepted as the norm by the WHO since 1997.

Globesity was not written by an over-zealous “lifestyle expert,” but by four leading specialists in public health nutrition. It was fortuitous that I happened to buy this book a few weeks ago, because it was at just that time that the editor of this magazine, Charleen Clarke, suggested that I write an article about drinking and alcoholism in the workplace. However important an occupational issue alcoholism may be, I admit that I am more fascinated by food than drink. Great food really gets me excited. That’s not to say that I’m some pretentious foodie who only eats “the best” and covets the precise provenance of all that I eat. But in the words of the great Irish playwright, George Bernard Shaw, “There is no love more sincere than the love of food.” Many would agree. I know I do.

But has our collective love of food become gluttonous to the extent that it is having serious impacts on many people’s health? The stats certainly suggest that: according to a report by the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), entitled “Prevalence of Obesity in the United States, 2009-2010” and released in January 2012, over one-third (35,7 percent) of American adults were obese at the time of the study. The report found no discernible difference in obesity levels between men and women, and further found that 17 percent of American children were also obese. Europeans are not much better. The International Obesity Task Force (IOTF) estimates that: “In the European Union 27 member states, approximately 60 percent of adults and over 20 percent of school-age children are overweight or obese. This equates to around 260 million adults and over 12 million children being either overweight or obese.”

And don’t begin to believe that this is a “Western problem.” On the contrary, the rise of overweight and obese people has risen most dramatically in developing countries. This is clearly outlined in Globesity, in which it is stated that: “There are already more obese people in developing and newly industrialised countries than there are in the industrialised world.” South Africa is certainly not immune. In fact, in a September 2009 article by The Guardian newspaper, the opening statement read: “It is renowned for surfing, rugby and the great outdoors, but South Africa is among the fattest countries in the world, a survey has found.” The survey, conducted by pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), had found that: “The rainbow nation is ‘eating itself slowly to death’, [in which] 61 percent of South Africans are overweight, obese or morbidly obese. Despite the country’s sporty reputation and the prevalence of gyms, the research found that 49 percent of South Africans do not exercise and 71 percent have never dieted. Most worryingly, 17 percent of children under nine are overweight.”

The eating epidemicResearch provided by the IOTF shows that, according to the latest stats available for each country, 27,4 percent of South African women are obese, compared to 3,9 percent of women in Mozambique and 11,7 percent of women in Namibia. Of all the countries on the African continent, only Egypt has a higher number of obese women. South Africa even has a higher prevalence of obese women than richer countries such as Australia (24 percent), Canada (23,5 percent) and Italy (22), not to mention Japan (3,4 percent) and South Korea (3 percent).

So what is making so many people overweight and, even more worryingly, obese?

Simply too much eating. Too much food. I can nosh down with the best of them and eat like it’s the last meal on Earth. Trust me, I am vicious at a decent buffet. But I find myself amazed at just how much so many South Africans eat at restaurants, hotels, conferences, training sessions, everywhere. It is scary, never mind downright off-putting at times. There is simply too much food going onto those plates and being shovelled down. Too many calories are being consumed.

The current logic seems to be that the average active man requires about 2 500 calories per day, and the average active women about 2 000 calories daily, give or take. In fact, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the average person only requires about 1 800 calories per day. Yet, according to 2009 statistics by FAO, the average American consumes 3 770 calories per day, while the average British person consumes 3 440 calories and the average South African 2 990 calories per day, all well over accepted requirements. Little wonder there is such a global overweight and obesity epidemic.

Solution? The world needs to eat less. Seriously – it’s the only way.


Ah, yes, the joys of fast food. Convenient, on-the-go eating that’s also cheap and, yes, fast; ideal for the time constraints and stresses of modern living. Or so we are led to believe. Convenient and fast it may be, but I beg to differ when it comes to “cheap.” Cheap on the pocket it may be (and even that is very debatable, by the way), but in no way is fast food cheap on one’s health or the public health system. It’s generally accepted that fast food is basically bad for one’s health. But how bad? A regular burger or six chicken nuggets with a medium cola and an ice-cream provides up to 1 200 calories. Upgrade that to a giant cheeseburger, large fries, large cola and a dessert, and that can be 1 600 calories or more, over 40 percent of which come from lipids (fats), most of it animal fat; in other words, the unhealthy type. Most of the rest of the calories are comprised of carbohydrates, the vast majority simple sugars. That’s a whole lot of energy with little real nutritional value, much of which is converted into fat if the person is inactive or already overweight.

More and more families around the world, including those here in South Africa, are increasingly resorting to frozen or ready-made meals as life becomes ever more time-strapped and hectic. Once again, there is a health price for this convenience. Some frozen or ready-made meals can have quite good nutritional values, but many do not, often being very high in sodium, sugar, saturated fats and a bewildering array of additives and preservatives. These ingredients can play havoc with a person’s metabolism and result in weight fluctuations.

Solution? Eat out less, especially fast food. Eat more at home and make more meals from fresh ingredients, wherever and whenever possible.

It’s not a rich thing

As stated before, the global obesity and overweight epidemic is not confined to so-called “rich” nations or sectors within societies. It goes further: the poorer you are, the more likely you will be overweight or obese, whether in an industrialised or developing country. This depressing fact was correlated in all my reading on this topic, whether the book Globesity, the GSK survey in South Africa or on the websites of the IOTF, the CDC or The Obesity Society of the US. According to Jonathan Girling, GSK vice-president for consumer healthcare: “What we have found is that obesity is not more prevalent in the lower social class than the upper so it’s certainly not a middle class issue. It’s an issue facing all of South Africa.” Dramatic shifts in eating habits have been most marked in developing nations, including South Africa, in recent decades. As the authors of Globesity note, “[developing] countries have completely transformed not only their diets but also their ways of producing, distributing and consuming food.”

Demographics also play a role, with the GSK survey showing Cape Town as being the heftiest city in the country (72 percent of those surveyed being overweight or obese), followed by Pretoria (68 percent), Johannesburg (59 percent) and Durban (52 percent). Once again, shifts in eating patterns do exist along demographic lines, with certain income and population groups being more prone to eating “inexpensively” (eating fast food or ready-made options).

Solution? Slow-food wherever possible. Don’t know what that is? Read up on it – empower yourself and
your family.

Cheap food, bad food

Protein from animal fat and simple carbohydrates have become dramatically cheaper to produce, making access to them much easier and more widespread. As stated in Globesity: “…it’s much cheaper than it used to be to fill up on calories, sugary and fatty foods.” As countries industrialise, they tend to “globalise” in their eating habits too. Fast-urbanising populations yearn for the Western lifestyle, replete with all the comforts thereof, “complete with a taste for processed food,” as various authors remind us. It sounds vaguely patronising, even possibly quasi-racist to speak about emerging countries like this, but, unfortunately, the alarming statistics of increasingly processed diets and correlated overweight and obesity levels from around the world bear witness to this fact.

The eating epidemicUnfortunately, it is this vast consumption of animal protein and carbohydrates, especially simple sugars, that has resulted in growing waistlines and the overweight and obesity epidemic, especially in poorer communities worldwide. And there seems to be
no end to it in sight for now.

Solution? Stop seeing fast, rubbish food as “cheap food” – it’s not. The toll it plays on your health and wellbeing is anything but cheap.

The industrialisation of food

Never before in human history has there been such ready, easy access to food. Agribusiness is a huge global industry, often with gigantic players who have no seeming connection to food production. According to Forbes, publisher of Forbes Magazine, the World Bank puts the food and agriculture sector at 10 percent of global gross domestic product, which, taking the bank’s 2006 GDP estimate of about $48 trillion, makes this sector worth about $4,8 trillion (roughly R40,8-trillion). That’s a lot of money.

The supermarket has replaced traditional food markets and small grocery stores in just about every corner of the world. It’s convenience at its very best, from which we all benefit. The supermarket is a key and prime mover in the global industrialisation of food. Supermarkets need to be well stocked and offer customers as staggering a variety of food products as possible in order for consumption to occur. Supermarkets have also grown in size. As such, supermarkets are an invaluable conduit in the industrialised food supply chain. The price of food has been an issue since the dawn of time, so nothing new there. However, the supermarket represents commodification; the very epitome of price awareness. Such emphasis on price per unit has too often been to the detriment of the core values in traditional food – namely freshness, quality and a greater “closeness” to the earth. That disconnect is of concern. And unfortunately, that industrialised food is all too often of suspect or compromised quality.

Quick, easy and abundant access to food – these are unfortunate catchwords in the global overweight and obesity epidemic.

Solution? Buy local. Not an easy one, granted. But one must try to buy local, fresh and organic food wherever and whenever possible.

Eco-destruction by proxy

The overabundance of food production seems grimly ironic when one considers just how many millions of people don’t have food security and go hungry every day. But the truth is this: never before has there been so much food production. Or, more accurately, never before has there been production of so much rubbish food. The good, nutritional food is still being made and processed, of course, but the food that is rubbish and damaging to our health is increasingly taking precedence. Furthermore, as calorific rates go through the roof in many countries, so more and more food must be made. And it’s not just about health – there are environmental consequences as well.

The environmental impacts of all this unhealthy over-consumption are enormous – massive loss of natural habitat due to land clearance for agriculture and cattle production, massive loss of biodiversity as a result of land clearing and monoculture agriculture, desertification, water security issues due to irrigation and resulting water pollution, huge contributions to climate change from cattle production, more toxic chemicals in the environment, even more organic, plastic and chemical waste at landfills … the list goes on and on.

Solution? Food is not just about sustenance and health, it has huge ecological implications too. Try to remember that whenever you shop for or eat food.

The American Heart Association summaries the whole affair in the starkest terms: “Obesity is defined simply as too much body fat.”

We’re eating far too much, and much of what we eat is not that good for us. And it’s making too many of us overweight. Cheap and easy is not necessarily good – and cheap and easy can become very, very expensive to our bodies and collective health, not to mention the environment.

As we enter the holiday period with Christmas and other festivities to be enjoyed, we must of course eat, drink and be merry. Most of us will over-indulge, for that is what the December holidays are all about. The trick is not to let the amount of food we indulge in at this time become a habit.


Vittorio Bollo has an LL.B in Law and Politics from the University of Birmingham (UK) and an LL.M in International Environmental Law from the University of Calgary (Canada). He has over 14 years of experience in the fields of environmental and SHE management, corporate governance and triple bottom line issues, and has a host of personal interests in many fields. He currently works for NOSA in R&D and training.

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