Almost a Third of SA Adults are Obese – Study Finding

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Associate Professor, Benn Sartorius

Three out of every 10 adult people in South Africa are obese with the number of overweight folk – especially Black women – continuing to rise.

This is according to a global research report co-authored by Associate Professor Benn Sartorius of Public Health Medicine at UKZN and published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine.

The study – titled: “Health Effects of Overweight and Obesity in 195 Countries over 25 years” –  also found that 30% of the world’s population is affected by weight problems, while more than two billion children and adults around the globe suffer from health problems related to being overweight. An increasing percentage of people die from these problems.

Of the 3.9 million deaths globally attributed to an overweight condition in 2015, nearly 40 percent – about 1.6 million – occurred among people whose body mass index (BMI) fell below the threshold considered “obese”.

The findings represent a growing and disturbing global public health crisis, according to the authors of the paper.

‘People who shrug off weight gain do so at their own risk – the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, and other life-threatening conditions,’ said Dr Christopher Murray, an author of the report and Director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington in the United States. ‘Those half-serious New Year’s resolutions to lose weight should become year-round commitments to lose weight and prevent future weight gain, said Murray.

The study, held in 195 countries and territories from 1980 to 2015, was released at the annual EAT Stockholm Food Forum, which strives to create a healthier, more sustainable food system. The work is based on data from the most recent Global Burden of Disease study (GBD) – a systematic, scientific effort to quantify the magnitude of health loss from all major diseases, injuries, and risk factors by age, sex, and population. Involving more than 2 300 collaborators in 133 countries, the GBD examines 300-plus diseases and injuries.

The paper presents the burden of high BMI on non-communicable disease, especially cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancers of the esophagus, colon and rectum, liver, gal bladder and biliary tract, pancreas, breast, uterus, ovaries, kidneys, thyroid, and leukemia.

‘IHME is committed to producing more in-depth studies on the implications of obesity and overweight, including through a new partnership with the United Nations,’ said Murray.

According to the research, the United States has the highest percentage of obese children and Egypt leads in adult obesity.

Said Sartorius: ‘South Africa’s current increase in BMI and overweight/obesity prevalence is of major concern and is much higher than most other global settings. The current and downstream health implications of this will be more than the already overburdened healthcare system can deal with if we do not act more vigorously and decisively. This is not to mention the societal and economic impacts of this epidemic.

’It is hoped that the South African National Department of Health’s strategic plan to help prevent and control obesity and related non-communicable disease will yield positive results. The recent sugar taxation legislation is aimed at reducing body mass at a population level and thus contribute to the reduction of both the burden of overweight/obesity as well as the non-communicable disease consequences. Stricter food labelling and advertising regulations and further regulations for trans fats are other elements of this proposed strategic plan.’

The UKZN community congratulated Sartorius on his involvement in the study. UKZN Vice-Chancellor Dr Albert van Jaarsveld commended Sartorius for representing UKZN in the global research project as did UKZN’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research, Professor Deresh Ramjugernath.

Said CAPRISA’s Professor Salim Abdool Karim: ’The NEJM is the highest impact factor journal in the world (IF=56) and is the most difficult to publish in. This study by the IHME based at the University of Washington and funded by the Gates Foundation, is a major contribution as it sets the global benchmarks for future programmes. The South African team involved – Andre Kenge, Aleta Schutte and Benn – are making important contributions to the global burden of disease assessments related to cancer and chronic diseases. It is great to see them flying the South African flag high in this consortium. My heartiest congratulations to Benn.’

The Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the College of Health Sciences, Professor Rob Slotow, also congratulated Sartorius.