A fat nation: Urban Zimbabwe’s descent to obesity


Bruce Ndlovu

It is a weekly ritual enacted without fail in one of Bulawayo’s thriving major fast food outlets.

Business is generally brisk at the joint on any given day, but the steady trek witnessed on other weekdays is replaced by a stampede on Tuesday, the day the joint offers two pizzas for the price of one.

While day brings a steady flow of customers, the onset of evening turns what is a significant trickle into a deluge.

Some emerge from the tidy corporate offices after a long day of crunching large numbers. Some trek from makeshift vending stalls where a single business transaction might mean the exchange of a few tattered dollars.

Whether wealthy, well-off or hardly making ends meet, they all meet every Tuesday to share this one corner of Bulawayo where their worlds collide.

Standing shoulder to shoulder with the pizza joint, a chicken outlet offers a few pieces of poultry heaven at an affordable price. A stone’s throw away, another joint offers a helping of two hefty burgers for the price of one the next day.

Whether it is at a big franchise selling Hawaiian pizza, importing the tropical island’s exotic delights for Zimbabwean taste buds or oily French chips offered by smaller outlets, the message is clear — Bulawayo, like other major cities around Zimbabwe, loves its fast food.

In the midst of this Tuesday feeding frenzy, few probably would have knowledge of what effect the pieces of pizza or chicken they are eagerly crunching have on their short or long term health.

According to a Zimbabwe Demographic Health Study (ZDHS) whose findings were made public last year, 35 percent of women aged between 15 and 49 years are obese while 12 percent of men are afflicted by the same condition.

Obesity is defined as the condition of being grossly fat or overweight.

According to the study, there has been a spike in the obesity of Zimbabweans, particularly women, in the last decade.

The statistics suggest that the waistlines of Zimbabweans are widening and this is moreso in the urban areas where these fast foods abound. While 28 percent of rural women are likely to be obese, 46 percent of urban women are afflicted by the same condition.

The question thus is whether the eating habits of Zimbabweans have contributed to the rise of obesity levels and what role geography plays in a trend that experts warn might become epidemic in a few years in rapidly urbanising Africa.

With the massive rural to urban migration, the eating habits of Zimbabweans have changed and in most cases, not for the better.

In urban areas, high energy, sugar rich foods are part and parcel of most meals. A single slice of pizza salvaged from the scramble described above might pack as much as 400 calories. Three more would bring the total to 1 600. Britain’s National Health Services advise that a mere 1 400 calories a day is enough for a woman watching her weight.

The bright city lights encourage a fast lifestyle and with the pressure to make a living, most are strangers to their own pots.

“Most fast foods are saturated in fat hence they increase exponentially the chances of obesity for those that consume them. Home cooked meals, which in most cases come with healthier ingredients like vegetables and without additives offer a healthier option,” observed medical practitioner, Dr Chris Mpofu.

The fast food culture however, is only one ingredient in a melting pot of factors that have led to the spike in the obesity levels among Zimbabweans.

Various aspects of urban life have meant that, in addition to quick on-the-go meals, the physical activities that even today still sculpt the bodies of men and women in rural areas are being done away with.

For example, in urban areas, instead of walking long distances as is still the norm in most rural setups, more and more people are using cars to get to places of work or leisure.

A fortnight ago, figures from Zimra showed that Zimbabweans parted with an estimated $3 billion as they brought 323 000 motor vehicles into the country in the last eight years.

In a similar vein, experts have warned that increased access to the internet can be linked to the rise in obesity levels. Like television, the internet has been pinpointed as the leading contributor to a sedentary culture in urban areas, a lifestyle characterised by a lack of physical activity.

Since dollarisation in 2009, Zimbabwe has witnessed a constant increase in internet use. According to the Postal and Telecommunications Authority of Zimbabwe (Potraz), internet penetration in 2009 stood at 5.1 percent, rose to 39.8 percent by 2013 and at the end of last year stood at around 50 percent. While inroads have been made in increasing internet connectivity in the rural areas, urban dwellers swell the ranks of those that find themselves connected to the worldwide web consistently.

With all their entertainment needs catered for, some Zimbabweans no longer have the appetite for physically challenging leisure activities.

Fast food based diets and sedate lifestyles have thus led to an inevitable increase in the prevalence of non-communicable diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular illnesses like heart disease and stroke.

According to the World Health Organisation, 31 percent of all deaths in 2014 in Zimbabwe were due to non-communicable diseases, with heart attacks and strokes contributing 10 percent to the total of human losses suffered that year.

Oddly however, while the march towards a fast urban way of life has gathered pace in the last few years, old attitudes about beauty persist.

In a study whose findings were published last year, Dr Esther Mafunga and Ms Lyanah Makuyana found that respondents, students at a local university, did not view obesity as necessarily tragic. In search of a fuller, “hour glass” figure that their male counterparts desire, many were ready to risk obesity.

“Despite a high prevalence of obesity among the youths who participated in this study, there was a tendency towards underestimation of overweight and obesity, similar to findings from other African countries. Some respondents, 33 (34 percent) reported that obesity was not a problem while others perceived obesity as the ideal body weight preferred by the opposite sex from an African perspective.

“These negative attitudes towards obesity show some degree of body shape and size dysphoria that might suggest the likelihood of some interest in appropriately framed obesity – reduction efforts in the obese youths who participated in this study,” they noted.

Those hoping that such traditional views of beauty will be followed by an embrace of all things African will be disappointed to note that few are interested in the healthier organic foods which went a long way in chiselling the much desired African body type.

According to historian and cultural activist Mr Pathisa Nyathi, the shift in the eating habits of Africans is indicative of a deeper identity crisis that has swept through Africans across the continent as they indulge in borrowed cultures.

“The African is happy to run away from his traditional cuisine. He seeks accommodation and belonging to some other groups which comes with its own cuisines.

“So he would be very happy eating pizza and other fast foods. He associates African cuisine with low people. We are what we eat. If you eat unripe food you also become that. If you eat some blown out chickens you also become blown out like the chicken you consumed,” said Mr Nyathi.

According to local fitness experts however, it is not all doom and gloom as the past few years have seen a steady increase in gym subscriptions as Zimbabweans take an interest in burning the fat.

“We now have a lot of people coming in compared to a few years ago. Most of the people that we get are women. The most admirable thing is that most are employed but still make time for gym because they want to look good,” said a local fitness instructor Mr Simon Gama.

While the increase in numbers of those heading to the gym might be admirable, this presents its own set of problems.

Britain-based cardiologist Dr Aseem Malhotra observed that instead of viewing a work-out as a way to get in shape, many saw it as licence to eat whatever their heart fancied when the gym gear was off.

“An obese person does not need to do one iota of exercise to lose weight; they just need to eat less. My biggest concern is that the messaging that is coming to the public suggests you can eat what you like as long as you exercise. That is unscientific and wrong. You cannot outrun a bad diet,” Dr Malhotra said.

While there is no end in sight to the debate on how to combat obesity and its deadly by-products, statistics indicate that as they jostle for their next fast meal, Zimbabweans might need to pay more attention to their waistlines and the food they nibble on.

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