Away from the famines, Africa confronts a new killer: obesity

Fast food and urban lifestyles bring scourge of the developed world to a changing continent

In the public mind, sub-Saharan Africa is a region plagued by war, famine and disease. Now it faces a new threat – obesity. It is not a problem widely associated with a continent where millions live on less than a dollar a day. But growing rates of obesity are posing a significant risk to the health of the next generation.

With a population that has passed one billion, Africa is starting to experience the ills of the developed world, driven by changing diets, urbanisation and increasingly sedentary lives, according to research published in The Lancet. The reasons for the steep rise in obesity among some of the world's poorest nations is hotly debated. One theory is that the global increase is a legacy of evolution. People from Africa, Asia and Polynesia are particularly prone to obesity because they are more likely to have inherited the genes that encourage fat storage.

This is the "thrifty gene hypothesis" – the notion that obesity occurs especially among populations exposed in the past to alternating feast and famine. Months of food shortages and near starvation would be followed by weeks of feasting when the rains came. Genes that laid down fat as a reserve against the next shortage were favoured – but among today's urban populations, where shortage never comes, the genes overdo their job.

In America, one adult in three is classified as obese, but obesity is markedly higher among black and native Americans than among those of European descent. But efforts to identify genetic reasons have failed, undermining the theory. As Sidney Brenner, the Nobel prize-winning biologist, once said, the gene for obesity was found long ago: it is the one that makes you open your mouth.

The real culprit, researchers believe, is the shift to urban living. Cities in Africa are the fastest-growing in the world. This is not only about the spread of McDonald's, KFC and the "Coca-Colanisation" of the developing world. It is also about the change in diet that occurs when people move from growing to buying their food.

Jenny Cresswell, chief author of the Lancet study, said: "Once people move to the city, their activity levels go down. They are no longer able to grow their own food. Instead they tend to rely on street hawkers and eat foods high in fat and sugar.

"Today, obesity in Africa is associated with wealth: the wealthier you are, the more likely you are to be overweight. But as populations get richer, it is expected that the picture will swing round and obesity will become associated with the poor."

Researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who analysed data from 27 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, say the increase in maternal obesity is threatening the lives of newborns.

The region has the world's highest neonatal death rate – deaths within four weeks of birth – and rocketing rates of obesity are driving it higher. The researchers say babies of obese mothers have a 50 per cent higher risk of dying in the first month.

Experts from Aarhus University in Denmark say the findings will "force us to see the global burden of obesity on reproductive health in a new perspective" because the complications attributable to overweight and obese mothers "may far outnumber the burden seen in affluent countries".

The UN said in 2006 that, for the first time, global deaths from excess had overtaken those from deficiency. That may soon apply even to the famine-scarred countries of Africa.

Arts and Entertainment
books
News
Dr Alice Roberts in front of a
people
Voices
Nigel Farage arrives for a hustings event at The Oddfellows Hall in Ramsgate on Tuesday
voicesA defection that shows who has the most to fear from the rise of Ukip
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Sport
Diego Costa
footballEverton 3 Chelsea 6: Diego Costa double has manager purring
Arts and Entertainment
The 'three chords and the truth gal' performing at the Cornbury Music Festival, Oxford, earlier this summer
music... so how did she become country music's hottest new star?
Life and Style
The spy mistress-general: A lecturer in nutritional therapy in her modern life, Heather Rosa favours a Byzantine look topped off with a squid and a schooner
fashionEurope's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln
Voices
Caustic she may be, but Joan Rivers is a feminist hero, whether she likes it or not
voicesShe's an inspiration, whether she likes it or not, says Ellen E Jones
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
News
i100Steve Carell selling chicken, Tina Fey selling saving accounts and Steve Colbert selling, um...
Arts and Entertainment
Unsettling perspective: Iraq gave Turner a subject and a voice (stock photo)
booksBrian Turner's new book goes back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Some of the key words and phrases to remember
booksA user's guide to weasel words
Life and Style
Brave step: A live collection from Alexander McQueen whose internet show crashed because of high demand
fashionAs the collections start, Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Graduate C#.NET Developer (TDD, ASP.NET, SQL)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Graduate C#.NET Developer (TDD, ASP.NET, SQL) Su...

Junior SQL DBA (SQL Server 2012, T-SQL, SSIS) London - Finance

£30000 - £33000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Junior SQL DBA...

C# Web Developer (ASP.NET, JavaScript, MVC-4, HTML5) London

£35000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Web Develop...

Senior Data Scientist (Data Mining, RSPSS, R, AI, CPLEX, SQL)

£60000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Senior Data Sc...

Day In a Page

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution