From children to adults, women to men, obesity remains an ever-increasing health risk in Mzansi. This was the revelation from the Association for Dietetics in South Africa and the Heart and Stroke Foundation, who today hosted a webinar to observe World Obesity Day on 4 March. The topic was “Everybody needs to act to make healthier choices easier”.
Health experts from Mzansi collectively chimed “Sisonke” as they agreed in unison that tackling obesity in the country would require a multidimensional approach.
It would take the involvement of government, healthcare and education systems as well as corporate and industry players to conquer the South African crisis of obesity, said Dr Sundeep Ruder, a clinical endocrinologist at the Life Fourways Hospital in Johannesburg.
“The purpose of human life is the achievement of happiness,” he said.
Professor Rina Swart from the University of the Western Cape, echoed his sentiments and added that, “Obesity is continuing to increase in adults and children and is a significant public health problem – at the same time, stunting in children remains constant and unacceptably high.”
What is World Obesity Day?
World Obesity Day is aimed at encouraging practical solutions to help people achieve and maintain a healthy weight, undertake proper treatment, and reverse the obesity crisis.
According to the national department of health (DoH), the prevention and management of obesity should not only be the responsibility of individuals and healthcare workers alone.
“A paradigm shift is necessary. This means a fundamental change in approach and underlying assumptions. There is a physiological, psychological and philosophical component to the causality of obesity. All interventions to combat obesity must be paired with the development of social consciousness,” said Ruder.
How to make food systems work for obesity prevention
A shift in paradigms begins with food systems, said Professor Corinna Hawkes from the Centre For Food Policy at the University of London.
The International Food Research Institute defines food systems as “the sum of actors and interactions along the food value chain, from input supply and production of crops, livestock, fish, and other agricultural commodities to transportation, processing, retailing, wholesaling, and preparation of foods to consumption and disposal. Food systems also include the enabling policy environments and cultural norms around food.”
Hawkes said there were many exciting opportunities to intervene in the food system to help prevent obesity. “Selecting the most impactful food system policies and interventions requires listening to the voices of people affected by obesity and the creation of dedicated spaces and opportunities to do so,” she added.
But what are the real complications of obesity in Mzansi?
Dr Jeanne Lubbe from the division of surgery at the University of Stellenbosch, unpacked three commonly asked questions about the state of obesity in South Africa:
What other strategies can be implemented in primary healthcare facilities to ensure obesity can be prevented?
“Maybe starting with education, not only of patients, but also healthcare workers. Most importantly for healthcare workers to understand the multifactorial causes, the dangers, and then how to engage with patients while not stigmatising, emphasis on healthy living. Moving more and eating as healthy as possible. Of course, it would be great if we can get to a point where treatment becomes an option to more patients, so that a referral system is in place.”
Obesity cannot be dangerous as we say it is, if medical schemes and healthcare insurances still refuse to recognise it as a chronic disease.
“Medical aids are coming to the party. Healthcare providers (both private and public) are realising the risks, and benefits of treatment. Remember that evidence remains new, and it takes time to filter through and change systems.”
How do we balance messaging around body positivity and removing stigma about obesity while advocating for change and awareness about obesity?
“I would suggest by keeping the emphasis on healthy living. And the moment that the multifactorial causes of obesity is recognised, the emphasis or blame or responsibility is taken off the individual.”