Child obesity a growing problem in Africa

April 19, 2015

Africa is far from immune to the problem of childhood obesity. Parents, members of the extended family, school administrators and local governments need to be educated so that they realize that childhood obesity is not “cute” and that a fat child is likely to grow into a fat adult and that their adulthood is likely to be plagued with health problems ranging from painful joints to diabetes, heart disease and ultimately a premature death.My Ugandan acquaintances recount their own childhoods, when even a single obese child in a classroom of 20 students was an anomaly. I challenge you to go into any school in Kampala today and find less than 20 percent of the children overweight….one dared me recently.Isn’t it inevitable that a life of excess brings with it big problems? Children suffering from obesity are proof that life may not be easier for those carrying around extra weight.Andrew Moshi, 15, from Kilimanjaro region, Northern Tanzania, shared with me last year how he was often teased by his friends because of his size.“They call me fat boy, it makes me feel ashamed.Andrew, a junior high student, weighs 78 kilograms and is 149 centimeters tall.He also suffers from poor health, with breathing difficulties after light exercise. Whenever children have problems, the parents are left to take care of the mess.Andrew’s mother, who sells coffee at a popular coffee joint in Moshi town, said she had to pay attention to her youngest son’s diet.“Andrew eats junk food only once a week. I am trying to reduce his meals,” the mother of two, said.

Obesity among African countries children is triggered by various factors, several of which are common among developing countries. Sugar and fats are the main culprits. Sugar is increasingly being viewed by some scientists and activists as “the new nicotine” that is, sugar can be addictive. But if so, it is an addiction willingly promoted by food manufacturers, vendors and even family cooks. I recall that when I first arrived in Africa more than 6 years ago, salad with spicy peanut sauce was a spicy, savory dish; nowadays it is often served a sweet concoction if I forget to tell the vendor to hold back on the sugar. And back then local juice were free of added sugar especially in Dar Es Salaam but nowadays all the juices have added sugar. And I was shocked few weeks back to buy emping crackers that were sweet, not savory and had to dispose it. Where does this sugar mania derive from? Restaurants add sugar to just about everything because they are afraid that customers will complain that the food or their drink is not sweet enough. And presumably, this is the business decision adopted by the juice maker. But is it a case of the cart leading the horse? Yes, the consumer demand is there because, see “addiction” above, the providers have triggered it. And so it is passed from adult to child, who will grow up accustomed to the taste of sweetness, oblivious of more nutritious alternatives that are sour or slightly bitter.The situation with fats is just as dire. I am astounded by how often African colleagues of mine take days off to attend funerals of relatively young family members who had suddenly died. Because autopsies are a rarity in the continent, the prevalence of heart and arterial disease is pure guesswork.What is more predictable, however, is that daily consumption of fried snacks, a part of office culture, must inevitably lead to health problems.

Moreover, fat-heavy fast foods like burgers, pizzas, fried chicken, chicken nuggets, french fries are now the preferred foods of many adults and children.A Ugandan friend child attends a school where some of his classmates bring chicken nuggets to consume during snack time. It’s not unlikely that an uneducated nanny or maid simply sends the child to school with whatever is easiest to make, fearing an employer’s wrath if the child is not provided a processed snack. Before, Andrew enjoyed having to sugar-rich bottled tea and greasy snacks such as fish balls. He told me how he used to drink two glasses of full cream milk a day at his bibi’s home (Tanzanian Swahili for grandmother) before it was substituted by low-fat milk, following a suggestion by his nutritionist, a decision that also required the family to spend more.Andrew’s problem is typical of thousands of cases of child obesity in Tanzania and across Africa. Obesity among children in Africa has doubled in the last decade and even though the number of obese children has been increasing at alarming rates, the government and the public remain unaware of the severity of the problem.Parental ignorance is also worsening the issue.

Namibia based Pediatrician Richard Biseko told me two years ago that sometimes parents were clueless about obesity and their children.“They come to us with other complaints such as hypertension or respiratory problems, without realizing that those all stem from obesity,” he said, adding that if not addressed, obese children could develop serious diseases such as diabetes.Obese children may also bring another burden for parents.“They need special diets with much more expensive food. They also need frequent consultation with doctors,” Dr Richard Biseko said.What has happened to the concept that fruit is a suitable, perhaps the best, snack?I despair when I see fat children being given a bag of chips when they loudly proclaim that they’re hungry or when an obese family comes into a restaurant and stuffs French fries and other fat-heavy foods into their children, to be washed down with a sugar-laden soft drink or juice. I despair when I see childcare providers chasing already bulky children around a mall, a container of food in hand, imploring them to eat. I despair when I see sidewalk vendors selling syrupy drinks or ices outside of schools. Contador Harrison is a monk practicing self-discipline and have no appetite for sugar and fat to assure myself of better health.

Contador Harrison