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AFRICA: Fighting the "double whammy" of obesity and hunger

BANGKOK, 8 October 2009 (IRIN) - Africa faces a double burden of obesity and hunger as millions take up increasingly sedentary lives in cities and the global financial crisis hits rural populations’ food security, nutritionists warn.

Under-nutrition continues to plague sub-Saharan Africa, where 32 percent of the world's hungry people live. However, those migrating from the countryside to cities are eating too much fatty food, leading to rising rates of obesity, diabetes, hypertension and high blood pressure, delegates at the International Congress of Nutrition (ICN) in Bangkok were told.

“The problem in Africa is [that] both under- and over-nutrition are the worst in the world. We really are facing a double burden,” Hester Vorster, of the Centre for Excellence in Nutrition at South Africa's North-West University, told the congress, which runs until 9 October.

“Over-nutrition is much the same thing as what we see in the west. Significant numbers of Africans have migrated to the cities and they are eating the wrong foods. So for Africa, the burden of disease is increasing all the time,” Jean-Claude Mbanya of the University of Yaoundé in Cameroon, and president-elect of the Belgium-based International Diabetes Federation, said.

''At the moment in Africa, nutrition is everybody's problem but nobody's business.''
Both over- and under-nutrition can be caused by poverty and food insecurity, with the urban poor unable to access or afford fresh and nutritious food, Helene Delisle, a nutritionist at the University of Montreal in Canada, told IRIN.

In some northern and southern African countries, over-nutrition has surpassed under-nutrition, but there is a complete lack of awareness about the new problems it brings, she said.

“These countries are not aware of it. In many areas, obesity is seen not as a problem, but as a positive sign that you are doing well in life,” she said.

Meanwhile, lower-income countries continue to suffer mainly from under-nutrition, which has actually increased over the past five years, thanks to the food price crisis of 2008 and the global financial crisis, Delisle said.


Photo: Seyid O. Seyid/IRIN
Women at a gym in Nouakchott, Mauritania, where the idea of obesity as beauty has been overtaken by a realization that is is deadly
Obesity on the rise


Statistics from the World Health Organization (WHO) show how obesity has risen while under-nutrition has persisted in some countries.

In Madagascar in 1992, just 1.6 percent of children were overweight, while 35.5 percent were underweight and 60.9 percent suffered stunted growth. By 2004, 6.2 percent of children were overweight while 36.8 percent were underweight, and 52.8 percent were stunted.

The rate of overweight and obese women also doubled between 1997 and 2004, to 8.1 percent overall.

And in 1987, 5.5 percent of Moroccan children were overweight; by 2004, that figure had increased to 13.3 percent.

Obesity is also on the rise in Uganda, although under-nutrition continues to pose the biggest problem, with about 40 percent of children under five suffering from stunted physical growth and mental development due to a lack of vitamins and nutrient-rich food.

Obesity and other so-called “lifestyle diseases” are widely regarded as a problem only for older people in Uganda but are increasingly prevalent in young men, Elizabeth Madraa, the head of food and nutrition at Uganda's Ministry of Health, and a delegate at the congress, told IRIN.

Anaemia in teenage girls is also increasing due to a lack of iron in diets, she said. And in another new trend, Ugandan mothers are increasingly choosing to give their babies powdered milk rather than breast-feeding them.

“They buy milk powder because they see it advertised, and we have to fight that. We need to address all this as a nutrition problem,” Madraa said.


Photo: Colin Crowley/Save the Children
Twelve-yera-old Aftin inside his home in El Wak, Kenya. Aftin's family is only able to afford one meal per day. Aftin is experiencing problems with his health as a result of malnutrition
Greater awareness


Mbanya called for awareness campaigns and legislation to fight the negative effects of a poor diet fuelled partly by advertising. “If we want our people to change their habits we have to make it easy for them to have healthy choices,” he said.

However, progress is hampered by the poor status of nutritional science in Africa, experts say.

Few well-defined job openings, poor salaries and recognition, and a plethora of competing curricula taught by unqualified trainers are among the challenges, said Tola Atinmo, Nigerian president of the Federation of African Nutrition Societies.

"At the moment in Africa, nutrition is everybody's problem but nobody's business," said Atinmo.

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Theme (s): Food Security, Health & Nutrition,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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