Sugary beverages and soft drinks are a leading cause of a growing epidemic of obesity in Africa, according to a new report from the World Health Organization.
The number of obese children across the continent doubled from 5.4 million in 1990 to 10.3 million in Africa today, the WHO’s Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity found.
And while soft drinks are a focal point of the report, the commission said that African countries’ rapid economic and social change were two primary, environmental culprits driving the trend. As the continent’s once-rural populations continue to coalesce around urban areas, African children are exercising less, taking public transportation instead of walking, playing indoors instead of outdoors, and have access to a greater number of unhealthy food choices.
“There’s been a great change with people moving from the countryside to the city,” Juana Willumsen, a member of the team working with the WHO Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity told Radio France International. “This results in a change in traditional diets. People have also become more sedentary. They start taking public transportation and cars instead of walking.”
In many of the countries, populations also face a lack of access to nutrient-dense food and information about proper nutrition. The result is often malnutrition and, paradoxically, obesity, according to the report.
“Children are exposed to ultra-processed, energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods, which are cheap and readily available,” it says.
There has also been an uptick in marketing of junk foods to children, the report said.
“Despite the increasing number of voluntary efforts by industry, exposure to the marketing of unhealthy foods remains a major issue demanding change that will protect all children equally,” the report says.
The consequences of widespread obesity can be taxing on both individuals and a country’s economy, according to Dr. Sania Nishtar, who co-chaired the commission that produced the report. Nishtar said in a statement accompanying its release that the physical, psychological and health consequences of being an obese child include a negative effect on educational attainment, which can result in economic loss for them, their families, and their society as they grow up.
The WHO found that Africa accounted for nearly 25 percent of the world’s 41 million overweight children under the age of 5, another 50 percent of whom live in Asia. That number is expected to increase to 70 million over the next 10 years, though the report included strategies and recommendations it hopes will curb that growth, including a tax on sugary drinks, a ban on advertising to children, promoting breastfeeding for infants, and increasing access to and awareness of nutritionally dense foods.
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