Tisha Eetgerink, Mail & Guardian
According to the report Dietary Changes and the Health Transition in South Africa: Implications for Health Policy, 17% of children between the ages of one and nine were either overweight or obese. Obesity in South African women ranged from 21% to 31% in different population groups. Of all South African men, 20% were considered overweight. For the ethnic groups, obesity was highest in black women and white men.
The report looked at changes in diet and lifestyle and how these contributed to chronic non-communicable illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hypertension and cancer.
Non-communicable diseases accounted for 37% of deaths in South Africa. HIV/AIDS and infectious diseases together accounted for 44%.
The MRC said South Africa was suffering from a "quadruple burden of disease": HIV/AIDS, underdevelopment, chronic diseases related to unhealthy lifestyles and injuries.
A "Western" diet, physical inactivity, and tobacco-use were major risk factors in developing non-communicable diseases.
A typical Western diet was described as having high levels of total and saturated fat, high levels of sugar and a low unrefined carbohydrate and fibre intake.
The report differentiated between population groups. Whites consumed a typical Western diet and the Indian and coloured populations in South Africa had very similar eating habits. With the black population there was a difference between those in rural and urban areas: people in rural communities followed a traditional diet -- high in fibre and carbohydrates and low in fat and sugar -- but the black urban group chose an adoption of the Western diet.
Other risk factors for non-communicable diseases were physical inactivity, smoking and alcohol use. The MRC report stated that levels are especially worrying among the youth. Girls tended to have the highest level of inactivity while boys tended to smoke more.
Despite the impact of an aggressive tobacco control policy the prevalence of smoking in South Africa remained high. By the age of 16, 30,4% of males were already smoking cigarettes, rising to 38% in 18-year-old males.
Researchers' recommendations for the future included levies on certain food items high in fat and sugar, school-based intervention programmes and education on a healthy lifestyle and more informative food labels. The full report (894 kb) is available at http://www.sahealthinfo.org/lifestyle/dietaccess.htm (Source: Tisha Eetgerink, Mail & Guardian, 3 May 2006).