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Cornell Student Articles on Topical Affairs

The Spread of Obesity to Africa

Everyone knows about the “obesity epidemic” in America: it’s in the news frequently since schools are taking measures to increase the quality and nutrition in the food they serve to students.  

The CDC reports obesity affected 93.3 million U.S. adults between 2015-2016. As of July 2017, America remains in the number one spot of the top 10 obese countries. It’s not a shock to see some of the other countries on the top ten list. Surprisingly, though, Nigeria – a Federal Republic in West Africa – made it to the number ten spot.

Obesity was once thought to be a strictly American epidemic, but it’s been infiltrating other countries over the years. Over the years, states across the world have been adopting the convenience of food Americans enjoy like fast food and packaged food. Now that supermarkets are becoming popular in some African countries, obesity is rising in tandem.

Although it’s the only African country to make the top ten list, Nigeria isn’t Africa’s only country affected by obesity. In Ghana, 27% of adults are obese; 25.1% in Seychelles; 24.3% in Swaziland; 22% in Liberia, and there are others. All of these countries have been experiencing rapid urbanization, and people have been eating processed, packaged foods rather than the fresh food from traditional markets.

According to this study, in Kenya, supermarket shopping results in a significant shift in dietary composition and an increase in Body Mass Index (BMI). Calorie consumption didn’t increase, but fresh fruits and vegetables were replaced by dairy, processed meat, snacks, and soft drinks. In other words, it’s not about the calories but the content.

We can’t blame the supermarket any more than we can blame the spoon, but there’s still cause for concern. Countries that don’t know the concerns over packaged foods might need to experience the problem to grasp it fully. Like the U.S., that could take decades.

A person can be obese and malnourished just as they can be emaciated and malnourished. Consuming excessive amounts of food without proper nutrients can have the same detrimental effects on the body as not consuming food at all. The human body needs nutrients to function, and if it doesn’t get them, it will pull them from muscles and bones, regardless of a person’s size. That’s especially bad for kids, whose bodies haven’t developed yet.

When children are malnourished, their bodies don’t develop properly, and many of them die as a result. A program called Nourish The Children shares that poor nutrition causes nearly half (45%) of deaths in children under five – just over 3.1 million per year. Most of those malnutrition deaths are the result of kids going hungry. The same stats show sixty-six million primary school kids attend classes hungry, including 23 million in Africa alone. Though, obesity caused by the introduction of supermarkets and packaged food is just as bad.

As convenient food becomes the standard, making healthy choices becomes more difficult. Consider that when you’ve had to prepare meals from scratch for your whole life, it’s a relief to get a complete meal in a box. Over time, however, those pre-made meals add up to a lifetime of poor nutrition, excess fat, and disease.

A surge in obesity means diseases associated with obesity, such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, and diabetes will soon follow. These diseases aren’t new, but in countries where they’ve been unheard of, their healthcare systems aren’t equipped to deal with them, which could make the problem worse.

So, what’s causing obesity across the world? Is it really a matter of eating less and exercising more?

Some people blame portion size and large meals for obesity. It makes sense. When excess food is consumed, the body will store what it can’t immediately use. How much food can be used for fuel is determined by a person’s metabolism. People with a slow metabolism can’t process food quickly, and when they eat large portions, their body ends up storing most of it.

Metabolism isn’t set in stone, though, and can be amped up or toned down by a variety of influential factors including what you eat and when, and the amount of preservatives and pesticides you consume.

In African countries, if residents are switching from local markets to supermarkets, there’s no telling where the produce comes from. Most produce is imported, even in the U.S. because it’s cheaper. If African supermarkets import organic produce, prices will soar, and just as in the U.S., people will have to choose between their health and their wallet.

Unfortunately, consumer demand for packaged foods with a long shelf life creates the need to add chemical preservatives to just about everything. Packaged food from the supermarket places any country at risk for an obesity epidemic equal to the United States.

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