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World Obesity Day 4 hidden health effects of obesity



Besides the well-known risks such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, obesity also exerts hidden impacts on cognitive function, reproductive health, mental well-being, and even certain types of cancer.

According to a 2023 study by the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, half of South Africans are either overweight (23%) or obese (27%). While overweight and obesity are on rise in general in South Africa, the worst affected segment of our population is women.  The World Obesity Atlas 2022 predicts that 50% of South African women will be not just overweight, but obese by 2030.

What is obesity?

The World Health Organization defines obesity as a complex medical condition that is characterised by an excessive amount of body fat. It occurs when there is an imbalance between calorie intake and calorie expenditure.

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Health risks

Dis-Chem Clinic Executive, Lizeth Kruger says the implications of being overweight or obese extend beyond what meets the eye. Visible effects include type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, but there are also hidden impacts on your cognitive function, reproductive health, mental well-being as well as certain cancers.

Cognitive function

Studies have shown that individuals with obesity are at a higher risk of cognitive decline and dementia later in life.

“Obesity not only burdens the body but also takes a toll on cognitive abilities, affecting memory, learning, and decision-making processes in midlife”, explains Kruger. The underlying mechanisms involve chronic inflammation, insulin resistance, and changes in brain structure and function.

Reproductive health

Obesity significantly affects reproductive health in both genders. In women, it leads to hormonal imbalances, disrupting ovulation and causing menstrual irregularities, which increases the risk of infertility. During pregnancy, obese women face increased complications like gestational diabetes, hypertension, miscarriage, and caesarean delivery, posing risks to both maternal and foetal well-being.

Additionally, it may lead to larger birth weights, birth defects, and long-term health issues for the baby. In men, obesity reduces sperm quality and causes erectile dysfunction, impairing fertility and increasing the risk of reproductive disorders.

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Cancer risks

Recent findings from the Cancer Association of South Africa reveal that obesity stands out as a significant and preventable factor contributing to various cancers. These include breast and bowel cancers, which rank among the most prevalent types, as well as pancreatic, oesophageal, and gallbladder cancers—recognised as challenging cancers to treat. Other cancer types include womb and ovarian cancers, along with kidney, liver, upper stomach, and meningioma (a form of brain tumor) cancers.

Furthermore, obesity impacts cancer treatment outcomes, affecting chemotherapy effectiveness, surgical results, and overall prognosis.

Mental well-being

The psychological toll of obesity extends beyond body image concerns. It significantly impacts mental well-being, contributing to developing depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders.

“Obesity is not just a physical burden but an emotional one as well, with consequences such as social stigma, discrimination, and low self-esteem associated with obesity magnifying mental health challenges, resulting in poor mental well-being and weight management difficulties,” says Kruger.

Load shedding playing a role in the country’s obesity rate

The Association for Dietetics in South Africa have pointed out that load shedding may well be having far more serious effects when it comes to our eating habits.

“There are increasing concerns that extensive and sustained power cuts are leading to a rise in fast food consumption as South Africans experience fewer undisrupted opportunities to prepare fresh meals at home,” it said in a statement.

That being said, load shedding alone cannot be blamed for the country’s rising obesity rates, there are many other lifestyle factors that play a role, but fortunately there are tips you can implement to lead a healthier lifestyle.

Registered Dietitian and ADSA spokesperson, Chanelle Retief recommends the following solutions to work around load shedding:

  • Invest in an inexpensive gas stove back-up. “You don’t have to go out and replace your oven with a gas alternative. Rather invest in a small two-plate gas stove to use when you need to cook while there is load shedding.”
  • Focus more on salad-based meals. “Add a few more tasty salad recipes to your repertoire so that you can put together delicious and filling meals when the power is off. When making a salad for lunch or dinner, always try to add a protein source to it by including leftover cooked chicken or meats, lentils or beans, eggs or cheeses.
  • Plan ahead and in more detail. “It makes it easier to manage the impact of load shedding on meals if you plan meal preparation, and the details of each of the upcoming week’s meals.  Integrate your schedule and the load shedding schedule, so that when you shop for food, you buy only what you know you need and can prepare.”
  • Make healthier choices if you are ordering in. “If you really have no choice and you need to buy takeaways – keep the plate model in mind. 50% of your plate should be veggies, 25% should be healthy carbs and 25% should be lean protein. Try and stay away from anything that is fried or ‘creamy’.

Tips to help with weight loss

 Affinity Health suggests the following tips if you are trying to lose weight:

  • Set Realistic Goals: When setting weight loss goals, it is essential to be realistic and set achievable goals. Focus on making small, sustainable changes rather than trying to make drastic changes all at once.
  • Keep a Food Journal: Keeping track of what you eat can help to increase awareness of your eating habits and make it easier to identify areas where you can make healthier choices.
  • Make Healthy Food Choices: Focus on consuming a diet rich in whole, nutrient-dense foods, such as fruits, vegetables, lean protein, and whole grains. Avoid processed foods and foods high in calories, fat, and sugar.
  • Increase Physical Activity: Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity activity most days of the week.
  • Get Adequate Sleep: Aim for 7-8 hours of sleep per night.
  • Seek Support. Seeking support from friends, family, or a healthcare provider can help to increase motivation and provide accountability during the weight loss journey.
  • Practice Mindful Eating: Mindful eating involves paying attention to the present moment while eating and being aware of hunger and fullness cues. This can help to prevent overeating and promote healthier eating habits.
  • Avoid Fad Diets: Fad diets can be ineffective and unsustainable long-term.

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