The imprecation of opulence
In many parts of the African continent, obesity has become a greater public-health crisis than hunger. Nearly every country has seen dramatic increases in obesity rates over the past few decades. The epidemic is especially prevalent in wealthier African countries like South Africa, Nigeria, though their poorest citizens tend to be the most affected. While this is by and large true in the South Africa, sorting by demographic group reveals complex and surprising patterns. When it comes to how income affects weight and how weight affects income, men and women generally experience inverse effects.There’s a tendency to think that obesity is a genetic problem. This is encouraged by the fact that some families are more prone to gaining weight than others. It’s partly true, but in the absence of an environment that promotes obesity, only a tiny minority cursed by their genetic lot would get fat. That’s why the history of humanity is one of leanness, rather than fatness.What, then, is it in Africa’s modern environment that has made around 30% of Africans overweight or obese, given that this epidemic only began around 2000? The answer of course, lies in Africa’s food supply highly processed, high fattening but very tasty and easy to get and inactivity through leisure-saving and entertainment technology such as cars, television, and computers.As one of those who dread oversize, I won’t just look for the immediate cause of a disease. I need to looks at the cause of the cause in Africa’s perspective. My interest is looking what has led Africans to fattening food and an inactive lifestyle. Quite clearly, it is the affluence resulting from a system of macro-economics, economic growth that began around the time of the independence and was kicked along by post independence policies.There’s no doubt that economic growth has been the biggest single positive influence on human health throughout history.
Africa life spans have more than doubled and infectious diseases have all but been eliminated, all as a result of increased growth.This mean such improvements will continue indefinitely in Africa.In economic terms as in all limited systems, there comes a time when further investment leads to diminishing rates of return. Growth beyond this is no longer rewarding. As one expert recently told me, growth beyond maturity is either obesity or cancer. In other words, things grow, hit a sweet spot where all is the best it can be, then proceed to decline. Unlike animals that run away and leave a good meal if frightened by predators, humans have a tendency to want to milk the sweet spot to its maximum. Like cinderella, Africans often stay too long at the ball, only to find their carriage has turned into a pumpkin. It’s a well-recognised phenomena used in explanations, where someone will rise to a level above his or her competency in a work environment in an effort to find an even nicer sweet spot.Economic growth hit the end of its sweet spot in Africa around 2000, the time at which the obesity epidemic got its kick start. Since then, obesity rates have increased almost in parallel with increases in Gross Domestic Product, a ridiculous measure of human achievement that politicians cling to from first to third world countries.How I wish there will be a new invention to replace Gross Domestic Product. The economic sweet spot, like all sweet spots eventually have to come to an end. And contrary to the belief of many African economists and politicians about the current economic slowdown being a problem of not enough growth, a more reasoned view would be that it’s a sign of the death throes of the 20 year growth era.Stopping the growth train even though it’s heading for a cliff takes a long time. And few are even talking at least in public about stopping it at this stage. Sadly, only fewer Africans have considered the effects of not doing so on health.