Obesity rising in Africa: WHO

Thursday March 03 2022
Overweight woman.

Obesity often results from taking in more calories than are burned by exercise and normal daily activities. PHOTO | FILE

By Elizabeth Merab

One in five adults and one in 10 children and teenagers are projected to be obese by December 2023 if no robust measures are taken to reverse the trends, a new World Health Organization (WHO) analysis shows.

Obesity is a health condition involving excessive body fat that increases the risk of health problems.

Risk factors

Obesity often results from taking in more calories than are burned by exercise and normal daily activities.

It occurs when a person's body mass index is 30 or greater. The main symptom is excessive body fat, which increases the risk of serious health problems and diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and certain types of cancers.

Among children, being overweight is associated with a higher chance of obesity, premature death, and disability in adulthood.


While obesity rates have historically been relatively low in Africa, they are steadily rising throughout the continent as a result of urbanisation, sedentary lifestyles, and fat-rich diets.

As the world prepares to mark World Obesity Day on March 4, the WHO analysis released Wednesday estimates that the prevalence of obesity among adults in the 10 high-burden countries will range from 13.6 to 31 percent, while in children and adolescents it will range from 5 to 16.5 percent.

“Africa is facing a growing problem of obesity and overweight, and the trends are rising. This is a ticking time bomb. If unchecked, millions of people, including children, risk living shorter lives under the burden of poor health,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa.

“But we can resolve the crisis because many of the causes of obesity and overweight are preventable and reversible.”

Growing problem

The continent also faces a growing problem of overweight in children.

In 2019, 24 percent of the world’s overweight children aged under five lived in Africa. According to the 2021 Global Nutrition Report, all African countries with available data are off track to meet global targets on adult obesity.

The latest statistics show that 18.4 per cent of women and 7.8 per cent of men on the continent live with obesity — up from 12 per cent and 4.1 per cent, respectively, in 2000.

Obesity is also emerging as a critical factor in Covid-19 mortality with overweight being associated with severe disease and the need for hospitalisation with Covid-19.

While no data on the correlation between obesity and Covid-19 hospitalisation is available yet for Africa, a study published by the Journal of Infection and Public Health found that of the 2.5 million Covid-19 deaths reported globally by the end of February last year, 2.2 million were in countries where more than half the population is classified as overweight.

Urgent action needed

Though nutrition activists say urgent action is needed, they have also warned that to deal with the crisis, governments must start by reimagining food systems and educating populations.

Lowering the risk of overweight and obesity includes adopting a healthy diet such as reducing the number of calories consumed in fats and sugars, undertaking regular physical activity as well as government policies that help people opt for healthier lifestyles and diets, for instance, by ensuring that healthy foods are accessible and affordable.

To combat obesity and overweight, WHO recommends a range of priority measures including government regulations such as mandatory limits on food sugar content; fiscal policies, for example, taxing sugar-sweetened beverages; food marketing regulations such as obligatory nutrient declaration by manufacturers; promoting healthier foods for older infants and young children; creating facilities for safe, active transport and recreation as well as reinforcing public health services. 

Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda are being supported to develop and implement regulatory standards and fiscal measures to promote healthy diets and physical activity.

They are being supported through a global initiative supported by WHO, the International Development Law Organisation, the International Development Research Centre, and the Swiss Development Cooperation.

In 2022, WHO will work with 10 more high-burden African countries for accelerated obesity reduction initiatives.

The international organisation, however, did not disclose which countries these will be.

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