Being of big weight was seen as an evidence of wealth and affluence in certain circles of Nigeria and Africa. Being skinny was perceived as being poor. You remember the practice of the ‘Calabar Fattening Room’ in preparing the bride to look ‘good’before marriage. The number of overweight (obese) people in the 1970s – 1990s was not of the proportion we now see in society. With increased economic growth in some of the Low–Medium-Income Countries (LMIC), has come the arrival of Western fast food diets and embraced by the middle-upper class of society.
Looking round our towns, cities and shopping malls, one cannot but fail to see men, women and children who are really overweight. One in eight Nigerian men are obese and the picture in women is no different. This developing picture is made worse by the fact that we are no longer as active as the previous generation who walked to school, played football rather than play video games.
There will be a group of people who would argue that people ate Starch and Akpu (a palm oil based stew) before the influx of McDonalds,
Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut, Mr Biggs and other local equivalent, and people were not obese. What has changed, in addition to these high calorific fast foods, is that we now live a sedentary life and engage in poor eating and drinking habits. This is beginning to lead to an obesity crisis in Nigeria and other African countries as we have witnessed in the West.
The obesity crisis in the West is a big burden on its health services and are struggling to cope with its effects. The health services in LMIC leave much to be desired and placing the further burden of obesity-related illnesses on them will result in unquantifiable inadequate care.
KFC and McDonalds are companies run to make profit. Must we ban them from Nigeria? There is an argument that they provide employment to people. Yes, they do, but how much are these workers paid for the energy expended on each shift? These food outlets must consider changing the calorific value of the food they sell. With regards to employment, there are other sources of employment that can be created in Nigeria and other African countries. Have you seen the state of canals built to aid the flow of water and prevent flooding? Once built, they are forgotten and they become dumping ground with flora growing in them and obstructing the flow of water. Employ people to clan and manage these facilties.
Obesity is being overweight, with men and women with expanding waistlines, fat deposition in the breast and at the back of the neck. Obesity is leading to an epidemic of diabetes, hypertension and heart disease. These diseases require adequate treatment and when this is lacking, it results in damage to the organs and eventual death. Nigeria and African countries lack the support system to support people who suffer a stroke as a result of hypertension or renal failure and blindness as a result of diabetes. Add to this list are the risk of breast cancer,cancer of the womb and infertility.
Women who are overweight are less fertile than women of normal weight. The chances of naturally falling pregnant or conceiving after fertility treatment (IVF) are lower in women who are overweight. The chance of a live birth is also decreased due to an increased risk of miscarriage. Pregnancy outcome is compromised by obesity-related complications of pregnancy.
The western word is tackling its obesity crisis on all fronts. Campaigns against high calorific food, labelling of food, smaller portions, provision of healthier alternatives and higher tax on these high calorific and fattening food are measures that have been introduced. They have a health system that is struggling to cope. The introduction of bariatric surgery is expensive and is not a panacea for the prevention of obesity.
The politicians have been silent on this issue possibly because of lack of information that this is a timebomb waiting to explode. Health economists will inform us that is is better to invest in anti-obesity programs than tackle the potential enormous costs of the sequelae of obesity. it is a chronic condition that is difficult to treat, it is easier to pile on the weight that attempts at weight reduction.
It is ironic that while some people in the continent suffer from poor food intake management, malnutrition exists in parts of the country, especailly areas of conflict. Africa is watching its people growing bigger and rolling down the slippery slope to death. This must be stopped through positive campaigns, government intervention and cooperation and partnership with the food industry. A nutritious local low-calorie diet, increased physical exercise and behaviour modification must be encouraged while the food industry must reduce the sugar/calorific value of their products. Advertisements targeted at children should be banned and Government must increase taxes on obesogenic food.
Obesity is a global problem and unless we secure the desired outcome of a healthy society, the world will witness another medical catastrophe in Nigeria and other nations. We can stop the fall down this slippery slope to death by preventing obesity.
Rotimi Jaiyesimi, 2017