New Lifestyles – New Diseases

A two-litre soft drink and a loaf of white bread is the standard diet for most construction workers in Cape Town. At least that is the conclusion you can draw from looking at lunches bought in the convenient stores in and around the city.

The sugary drinks and the white bread is part of Africa’s new health threat: obesity.

South Africa, being the most prosperous country sub-Sahara, is the worst effected. The country is rated as the most obese nation in the sub-Sahara region with some 70 per cent of the women and 40 per cent of the men being overweight or obese. Approximately 7 per cent of the population are diagnosed with diabetes, twice the percentage compared to Sweden.

Unless decisive action is taken, massive pressure will be put on an already over-stretched health system and the “new” diseases can become yet another obstacle for development in Africa.

Non-communicable diseases (NCD) such as cardiovascular diseases, cancers, diabetes, and chronic respiratory diseases, are the leading cause of death in most regions around the world – except in Africa. However, over the next decade Africa’s 54 low- and middle-income countries are expected to have the world’s largest increase in NCD. By 2030, more people in sub-Saharan Africa will die from NCDs than from HIV, TB, malaria and malnutrition combined.

There is not one single cause for this rapid increase, rather a complex combination of different factors including a swift urbanization, a generally unhealthy diet, smoking, alcohol and a changing lifestyle with less physical work. All together these risk factors play a major part in the rise of NCDs.

“Villagers might not have the material standards of the urban population, but they live a much healthier lifestyle. Our cities have become hives of gluttony, as South Africans embrace junk diets,” says Dr Sundeep Ruder from the Society of Endocrinology, adding that poor education and the lack of understanding make preventive measures difficult.

According to Ruder, insufficient nutritional information on food products and little knowledge about the consequences of eating un-healthy, combined with the seductive message from advertising bureaus, add to the complexity of the equation.

“How is a poorly educated population to know that a can of sugar has, on average, 10 teaspoons of sugar in it? And how are they to know that consuming fast food and soft drinks can contribute to disease and death later?” he asks.

According to University of Cape Town, School of Public Health, South Africans consume 2.5 times as much soft drinks as the global average.

And as the palate change towards sweeter and more addictive products, people abandon local produce for cheaper options. As in most parts of the world, healthy food is more expensive than junk food and so obesity becomes an illustration of an economically segregated society where the rich can afford to eat healthy and the poor is left with the cheaper un-healthy products.

“You can buy a can of soft drink in the most remote corners on the African continent, but it is far from certain that you’ll find medication to treat malaria or TB,” Ruder says.

To address NCDs, several African countries have taken various actions. Botswana, Kenya and Ghana, among others have taken various steps and measures to reduce alcohol consumption. Many African countries have also tried to address the harmful use of tobacco. As for sugar, South Africa, has become the first country in Africa to introduce a sugar-tax as of April 1, 2018. The Healthy Living Alliance in South Africa, welcomes the initiative and hopes that more countries will follow suit.


Görrel Espelund

Journalist, author and Africa guide. Read more about Görrel here.