Is obesity a rich man’s problem?

A new study suggests that the worldwide obesity epidemic is lowest in Africa with Egypt being the only African country on the list of top ten countries having the biggest number of overweight people. But this is not necessarily good news as it might also mean most Africans are too hungry to grow fat.

A new study suggests that the worldwide obesity epidemic is lowest in Africa with Egypt being the only African country on the list of top ten countries having the biggest number of overweight people. But this is not necessarily good news as it might also mean most Africans are too hungry to grow fat.

The number of overweight people has increased to 2.1 billion as of 2013 from 857 million people in 1980 according to the University of Washington’s institute for health metrics which carried out the study.

The study notes that the ten countries that account for 50% of the world’s obese people is topped by United States and followed by China, Mexico, India, Russia, Germany, Brazil, Indonesia, Egypt, and Pakistan; respectively. So is obesity a rich man’s problem?

It would appear so given that United States which is the world’s largest economy has the lion’s share of obese people at 78 million while China, the second biggest economy has 48 million of its nationals, overweight.

See, one’s unlikely to find many people with overweight problems in country like South Sudan where a million persons risk dying from hunger; in fact there are more South Sudanese people in need of fattening than those who need to lose weight.

Obesity presents an interesting irony; on one side, you have millions of hungry people in South Sudan and other countries who need to eat more food to avoid starvation yet on the other, some 78 million fat Americans are being encouraged to eat less and healthy if they’re to survive overweight related deaths such as heart attacks — in both cases, food is central; others have too much of it while others are in lack of it.

People need to watch their eating habits because the Harvard School of Public Health says obesity results when someone regularly takes in more calories than needed; the body stores these excess calories as body fat.

It therefore makes sense that in Africa where many families are struggling to have three meals a day, there are fewer cases of obesity and more of hunger and malnutrition. We need food.

Klim McPherson, a professor of epidemiology, says “although appetite is necessary for survival, increased exposure to processed food is overwhelming people.”

But processed food is a luxury for the rich as you’ll find it at places such as McDonald’s or KFC- places where only those with healthy wallets dine but at the cost of gaining unwanted weight off the junk food.

Indeed, McPherson adds that “together with the technological revolution in food science and the sale of junk food, modern lifestyles and increasing disposable income play a part in this (overweight) problem.” 

It could also explain the long standing African tradition that tends to celebrate ‘fatness’ as a sign of wealth yet, and quite ironically, people in wealthy nations regard fatness as a killer disease that claims at least 3.4 million people every year according to the World Health Organisation.

You just have to reminisce on the last time you visited your relatives up-country after a long time; some looked at your protruding pot-belly approvingly and exclaimed; “Oh! You’ve gained weight, what are you eating? You must be making a lot of money in the city!”

Being overweight reflects one’s lifestyle and perception. For instance, most traditional African men want their women fat with sweeping bums and wide hips yet modern women everywhere are burning calories in the gym to get slim model-like figures while young men are investing in six-pack bodies with ripped muscles.

In African societies, a boss isn’t complete without a ‘boss figure-’ fat with a pot-belly; it’s a mentality issue where fatness symbolizes a higher social status — a fallacy! You need to look at Microsoft founder Bill Gates’ or Chinese billionaire Jack Ma Yun’s lean bodies to know better.

To help people overcome obesity, there are global campaigns that encourage people to feed on healthy diets and increase physical activity but with the pressure that comes with high cost of living in urban areas, most people are too busy earning money to spare time for body exercises or proper meals.

Fast food cafes have made people’s kitchens redundant and the impact is the increasing cases of obesity, a price being paid surviving on Junk food.

If you have a weight problem, you probably need to check what you often eat with the help of a nutritionist but you also need to fix time on your tight schedule for regular physical exercises.

Kigali gyms could be expensive but their fees are not higher than the cost of curing obesity; if overpaid equals to overweight then you might need a pay-cut. 

The writer is a post-graduate student at the Communication University of China

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