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The Weight of Africa: Overweight and Obesity the New Crisis

| May 23, 2022

No, we are not talking about geographic landmass or a few extra pounds here, Africa is facing an obesity epidemic, and it’s getting worse every day!

Today, obesity is a global epidemic. It’s not just an American problem, and it’s not just a European problem. This issue is felt most acutely in Africa. Such an irony for a continent facing a high prevalence of undernutrition.

The obesity crisis has made Africa face a double burden of disease with an increasing prevalence of overweight and obesity coexisting with undernutrition.

In the past 20 years, obesity rates have increased by nearly 75% among adults in Africa. That’s according to a new report from the World Health Organization (WHO). WHO states that 33% of adults are overweight or obese in Africa—one of the highest rates worldwide, and while that rate is expected to rise by another 6% over the next two decades, it will likely continue to be higher than anywhere else on earth.

And it’s not just adults who are suffering from this epidemic. In sub-Saharan Africa, more than 23 million primary school-aged children also suffer from overweight and obesity. This is a staggering figure—and one that means that nearly 80 percent of African children will be overweight or obese by 2050, according to WHO projections.

In Africa’s most populous country and the most populous black nation in the world – Nigeria. Women have one of the highest rates of obesity in the world and this is causing long-term health problems for their children.

Obesity during pregnancy can cause health complications for both mother and child. This can lead to the need for an emergency Caesarean section, which increases the risk of infection and other serious problems in women. Obesity during pregnancy is also associated with pregnancy complications such as preeclampsia (high blood pressure) and preterm birth (premature birth). What’s more, children born to overweight or obese mothers are also more likely to become overweight themselves – putting them at risk of developing type 2 diabetes earlier in life.

Who are people with obesity?

There are different parameters used by international agencies to define obesity. This is based on diagnostic criteria for excess body weight or fat mass, etc. some of these parameters are;

  • The World Health Organization (WHO) – BMI 25 kg/m2 or more 
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – BMI 30 kg/m2 or more
  • International Diabetes Federation – waist circumference > 94 cm (men) or > 80 cm (women) 
  • National Institutes of Health Consensus Development Conference Panel – weight 30% or greater above ideal weight for height 
  • NCEP Expert Panel – total cholesterol 250 mg/dL or higher; triglycerides 500 mg/dL or higher HDL cholesterol < 40 mg/dL (men) or < 50 mg/dL (women).

Why are Africans Becoming Overweight?

The prevalence of overweight and obesity varies considerably across the continent, both between and within countries. While there are many factors at play here including diet and lack of exercise, one of the main causes seems to be socioeconomic status (SES). 

Many African countries have experienced rapid economic growth and changing lifestyles over the past few decades which have led to significant changes in dietary patterns and physical activity levels.

To understand the causes of obesity in Africa, it is important to look at the factors that impact food intake and physical activity. These include:

  • Lack of physical activity – While Africans used to be known for their very active physical lifestyles like farming, hunting, walking miles each day to get water or gather firewood, etc. modern facilities and rural-urban migration have changed a lot of these. Now many people live very sedentary lifestyles due to their jobs, etc. As a result, many Africans do not engage in regular physical activity. This lack of exercise combined with an abundance of unhealthy food options has contributed heavily to rising rates of obesity among Africans today.
  • Poor diet – More and more Africans across different countries in the continent are becoming used to eating fast foods, and processed foods. Eating too much processed food can lead directly to weight gain over time because most processed foods are high in fat or added sugar (and sometimes both). People who regularly consume these types of foods tend not only eat more than other people because they’re less satiated from eating them but also gain weight faster than those who don’t eat such foods as often.”

Other less complex but interrelated factors that contribute to overweight/obesity in the continent include;

  • The slow fading away of the outside playing culture due to insecurity and the slow death of communal living is causing children are beginning to stay indoors more, there is a lack of safe playgrounds and recreation areas where children can play safely, and this is breeding an overweight generation.
  • The proliferation of fast food outlets selling burgers and pizza and street foods such as grilled meat skewers (suya) or potato chips (crisps) sold by street vendors and the increasing availability and popularity of processed foods, including sausages, ice cream, crisps, biscuits, chocolate bars, and soft drinks.
  • A reduction in physical activity due to increasing car ownership among affluent families results in journeys that once were walked being undertaken by car; also contributing to this problem is the wider use of technology which contributes to increased sedentary behaviors such as watching TV or playing video games for long hours at home or school (especially during the rainy season)

The Epidemic of Obesity in Africa

Obesity is rising at an alarming rate in Africa. Every year, more and more people are becoming obese not just because of overeating but because their lives have changed so dramatically over the past 30 years. It is a complex issue that has no easy answers as it is linked to poverty, lack of physical activity, poor education, and diet.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), global obesity has nearly tripled from 1975 to 2016, with the African region having the highest increase among men and second-highest among women after Eastern Mediterranean. 

Although the prevalence of obesity has risen globally, Africa has experienced one of the fastest rates of change. Obesity is one of the fastest-growing global health concerns and the most prevalent NCD in Africa. The number of obese people in Sub-Saharan Africa increased from 5 million in 1980 to 9.8 million in 2014. The rapid rise in obesity prevalence among African children is particularly alarming, as it is fueling a double burden of disease that includes a survival crisis from childhood undernutrition as well as a new epidemic from chronic diseases associated with obesity.

Obesity has caused an epidemic of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as diabetes, cardiovascular diseases (like heart attacks and stroke), cancer, hypertension, diabetes, chronic respiratory diseases (such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and asthma), and chronic kidney disease in Nigeria and Africa. Obesity is also a major risk factor for certain types of cancer (endometrial, breast, and colon), as well as strokes and other diseases like arthritis, which causes inflammation in the joints.

“The WHO has projected that 60 percent of people living with hypertension will be African by 2025.”

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), non-communicable diseases (NCDs) are the leading cause of death globally and are responsible for more than 70% of all deaths in Africa, and overweight is a major causative factor of these NCDs.

In Africa, NCDs such as obesity have not only greatly affected people’s health but also their economies. The economic ramifications of NCDs include loss in productivity due to sickness or death; increased family expenditure on medical costs; increased government spending on health care; reduced national income growth; loss in output due to premature deaths; decline in labor supply due to illness/death; and loss in foreign exchange earnings from tourism due to negative publicity about infectious diseases.

The African Diet and How It Is Fueling Obesity

You may be wondering how the African diet has changed. In many cases, it’s changed for the worse. Many of us are eating more processed foods and fewer vegetables and fruits. This is causing a rise in obesity and related illnesses.

The misconception of what constitutes healthy eating is contributing to the rapid rise in obesity around the continent, leading to diseases such as diabetes and hypertension previously seen only in adults.

Africa has always been known for its rich and tasty food with good nutrition. However, over time this has changed as people have become more accustomed to fried foods and less exercise is incorporated into everyday life.

When you eat a lot of processed foods, you consume high amounts of fat, sugar, salt, and carbohydrates that your body doesn’t need. These types of foods have been linked to coronary heart disease as well as diabetes and stroke. If these diseases don’t kill you early on (or if they do), then heart failure will eventually come knocking at your door because all that bad stuff in your body has slowly built up over time until one day it’s just too much weight for those old ticker valves to handle anymore––and out goes old faithful!

People are unaware of the risks of obesity and overweight, along with a lack of understanding about the role of nutrition in good health.

Treating Overweight and Obese Africans

There are several options for treating overweight and obese Africans. These include diet, exercise, weight loss surgery, medication, and psychological counseling. The goal of these treatments is to help people lose weight to reduce their risk of developing heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.

One of the most effective ways to lose weight is through lifestyle changes such as following a low-fat diet and increasing exercise levels. This kind of treatment can be very effective because it helps patients change their eating habits so that they no longer consume as much fat or salt (sodium). It also encourages them to get more physical activity so they burn off more calories each day without having to change what they eat or drink too much – this can make it easier for people who don’t want drastic changes in their lifestyles right away!

A new lifestyle for a healthy living

If you want to lose weight, you need to be mindful of what you eat, how much exercise you get, and when. You also need to ensure that the rest of your life is in balance.

  • Diet: A healthy diet will help with weight loss. Foods high in fiber are recommended as they keep digestion regular and prevent constipation; foods that have less fat and sugar should be chosen over those with more fat or sugar; lean meats are better than fatty ones because they have less cholesterol; fresh fruits and vegetables should be consumed daily for vitamin C which helps build resistance against infections such as colds or flu; drinking plenty of water keeps the body hydrated which prevents dehydration which causes bloating.
  • Exercise: It’s important for anyone who wants to lose weight to get at least 30 minutes per day of moderate physical activity (brisk walking), preferably every day – this can include taking stairs instead of lifts/elevators whenever possible etcetera… moderate activities count towards your target!
  • Cultural Reorientation & Education: In some cultures, being thin is considered attractive—and being overweight is seen as unattractive or even shameful. This makes it harder for people who are overweight to feel comfortable talking about their weight or taking steps towards becoming healthier. It is vice versa for some other cultures, with the reverse psychological effects. To address these harmful cultural practices, people should be educated on the risks of both being overweight and underweight, and the health risks of some of their practices. 


The world is growing fatter. In Africa, that’s a problem. It is a serious health and socioeconomic issue that affects the entire continent. While the high rates of obesity have been attributed to several factors including genetics, lifestyle changes, etc. 

The next big question is, so, what’s next for Africa? Well, there is a big need for policy reform as well as education. Governments can implement policies and programs to encourage healthy eating habits and physical activity in schools, workplaces, and neighborhoods. There are already some initiatives focused on fighting obesity in Africa (like the Global Nutrition Report), but they need more support to impact change at a larger scale to make a significant impact on the continent.

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