OBESITY: You may be eating your way to the grave

While a wider waist line may be considered as eating well and a manifestation of wealth, the flip side to obesity is better imagined.  Vera Onana writes about the health complications that accompany excessive fat.

In our culture, being skiny is often attributed to sickness or disease but fatness is usually regarded as a sign of good living. As a matter of fact, in some cultures, brides are locked up in a fattening room and fed till they literally “explode” because it is considered a taboo for a bride to be skinny. Sadly, even in this age and with the increased number of educated and enlightened people, some Nigerians still define pot belly as a sign of good living, how ironic?

In 2013, a group of researchers after carrying out a systematic review on the prevalence of overweight and obesity in Nigerian adults, declared Nigeria epidemic for obesity. Their study concluded that “the prevalence of overweight and obese individuals in Nigeria is of epidemic proportions.”

Obesity is a major health problem and there is an increasing trend of overweight and obese individuals in developing countries. Being overweight or obese is known to contribute significantly to morbidity and mortality rates in various countries around the world.

There are several classifications and definitions of obesity; however, the one commonly adopted is the definition by the World Health Organisation (WHO), which defines obesity as a body mass index (BMI) of 30 kg/m2 or more. In 2008, more than 1.4 billion adults (20 years and above) were overweight, and of these over 200 million men and nearly 300 million women were obese.

This data is alarming considering the health burden associated with obesity. In addition, surveys have shown that the increasing trend of obesity in the world is even more pronounced in developing countries of the world. Nigeria, a developing country, is the most populous country in Africa, with increasing changes in lifestyle and associated increasing burden of noncommunicable diseases.

Dr Jide Oyetunji of the Federal Medical  Centre, Kaduna, Kaduna State, stated :“Obesity is usually associated with other major and minor diseases which may include hypertension, diabetes mellitus, and atherosclerosis, as well as cancer; there are also many additional less known complications of the disease.”

Speaking on the causes of obesity, he added, “Although there are genetic and hormonal influences on body weight, the bottom line is that obesity occurs when you take in more calories than you burn through exercise and normal daily activities. Your body stores these excess calories as fat.”

A dietician, Olaoluwa Gbadegesin decried the attitude of Nigerians generally towards accumulating calories. “It is frightening the way some people eat and what they eat. People come to me all the time about losing weight and go on about how they have been exercising but still not burning fat. The irony is this, you will discover that after all the running and work out on tread mills, they go home to face a mountain load of Eba and demolish it.”

“The watch word is calorie counting and eating healthy. Most Nigerians have poor eating habits. Though the economy also affects our nutrition, we can consciously decide to be healthy. For instance, instead of eating all the junks and take outs from eateries, why not make a vegetable salad or simply eat fresh leafy vegetables?”

Gbadegesin added that “asides unhealthy diets and eating habits., constant consumption of diets that are high in calories, eating fast food, skipping breakfast, eating most of your calories at night, consuming high-calorie drinks and eating oversized portions, all contribute to weight gain and ultimately obesity.”

Elucidating on the other causes of obesity asides from diet, Dr Oyetunji added that inactivity is a major culprit. “If you are not very active, you don’t burn as many calories. With a sedentary lifestyle, you can easily take in more calories every day than you burn off through exercise or normal daily activities. Watching too much television is one of the biggest contributors to a sedentary lifestyle and weight gain.

“Another is weight gained during pregnancy. Some women find this weight difficult to lose after the baby is born. Getting less than seven hours of sleep a night can cause changes in hormones that increase your appetite.  Also, some medications can lead to weight gain if you don’t watch your diet or get enough exercise.”

However, to stay healthy and free of complications of obesity such as, cancer, infertility, diabetes, high blood pressure, osteoarthritis and emotional issues like depression, experts advise dietary changes, reduction of calories intake, adoption of an healthy eating plan, regular activity and meal replacements.

According to Opeyemi Akinola, a nutritionist and dietician, “the key is to decipher good and bad fat and take the ones that are beneficial to the body. Good fats include monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (these come mainly from nuts, seeds, vegetables and fish). Bad ones include industrial-made trans fats (on product labels, they are typically indicated as partially hydrogenated oil) and several researches have shown that for every two per cent of calories from trans fat consumed daily, the risk of heart disease rises by 23 per cent).”

Gbadegesin, on a conclusive note, admonished Nigerians to be proactive with obesity. “The old adage says prevention is better than cure. So in my opinion, obesity is better prevented. Struggling with obesity has a lot of downsides considering the other health issues that can arise. Whether you are at risk of becoming obese, currently overweight or at a healthy weight, you must take steps to prevent unhealthy weight gain and related health problems.

“One of the most important things you can do to prevent weight gain is to exercise regularly. Eat healthy meals and snacks. Focus on low-calorie, nutrient-dense foods, such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Avoid saturated fat and limit sweets and alcohol. Monitor your weight regularly.

“People who weigh themselves at least once a week are more successful in keeping off excess pounds. Monitoring your weight can tell you whether your efforts are working and can help you detect small weight gains before they become big problems.”