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The (costly) fat of the land

Oct 15 2017 06:01
Vukile Dlwati

Johannesburg - South Africa has a fat problem and the economic impact of obesity is estimated to be R701 billion each year.

It is getting worse and the new Vitality ObeCity Index for 2017, compiled by health insurer Discovery, helps explain why.

“Obesity in South Africa is increasing faster than the global average. National surveys paint a disturbing picture, with the number of overweight and obese men and women increasing since the last national survey four years ago,” reads the report.

According to the SA Demographic and Health Survey, released last year, 68% of women and 31% of men are overweight.

About 20% of women and 3% of men are “severely obese”.

Speaking at the release in Sandton this week, Dr Craig Nossel, head of Vitality Wellness said: “There’s more to obesity than feeling uncomfortable in your body, because people become prone to a whole host of diseases, which further highlights a health issue and an economic issue affecting healthcare costs.”

The ObeCity index uses members of the Vitality programme to gauge how healthy shopping habits are in different cities.

It uses body mass index and waist circumference data from the medical checks on members to measure obesity.

It found that between 48% and 53% of adults in major South African cities have “normal weight status” and that shopping habits are probably bringing that number down.

“We looked at the fruit and vegetable consumption and the data that came out is that over the last three years, fruit and vegetable costs had increased by almost 19%,” said Nossel.

We are faced with an obesogenic environment, one that is not conducive to weight loss and in fact promotes weight gain, which means fewer people know what is in the food they consume, he said.

Noluthando Nematswerani, head of Discovery’s Centre for Clinical Excellence, said: “We have a growing chronic illness burden which stems from obesity.”

The costs of chronic illnesses were four times greater than for non-chronic conditions.

She said these costs were not sustainable for the private healthcare system because it was already expensive and the premiums would continue to rise as more money was spent on treating chronic conditions.

“I think we underestimate the treatment cost of diseases related to obesity and the impact it has on the healthcare system.”

The R701 billion estimate for obesity-related costs in South Africa stems from a 2014 report by the McKinsey Global Institute. The figure was arrived at using the combined estimated cost of productivity loss, absenteeism and medical expenses.

Sundeep Ruder, clinical endocrinologist, said businesses should concern themselves with the health and wellbeing of the population at large because it would translate into higher productivity and profits.

Abnormal habits had become the norm, he said.

“Because of our disastrous world economic system, people are becoming unhealthier. We are driving economic growth at the expense of the world.

“Many years ago, agriculture was developed by a group of people who thought about freeing families from the chore of having to grow their own food, so they could pursue other things.”

Helen Kean, senior economist at consulting firm Econex, said making structural changes within the food industry was not a simple solution because pricing was the interaction of supply and demand. Adjusting, for example, the prices of healthy foods could hurt certain industries financially.

“If changes are to be made in the food business, all stakeholders’ concerns, losses and gains need to be considered, especially in the not-so-good South African economic climate. At the same time business had to find a way to work with the health agenda, she said.

obesity  |  survey
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