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Last Updated: Sunday, 31 October, 2004, 15:22 GMT
Obesity epidemic 'out of control'
By Ania Lichtarowicz
BBC World Service health correspondent

Overweight man
Experts warn more than 300 million adults worldwide are overweight
The global epidemic of obesity is completely out of control, according to leading specialists at the first international obesity meeting in Africa.

The warning comes on the closing day of the conference, which has been addressing the growing number of obese people across the developing world.

Obesity rates are escalating everywhere. More than 300 million adults worldwide are overweight and most of them are suffering from weight-related illnesses like diabetes, heart disease and sleeping disorders.

Doctors at the meeting are warning that unless something is done, health care services in both the developed and developing world will not be able to cope with treating people with diseases linked to obesity.

Aids and obesity

In South Africa, one in three men and more than one in two adult women are overweight and obese. These are same levels as in the United States.

In Morocco 40% of the population are overweight, while in Kenya it is 12%. In Nigeria it is estimated that between 6% and 8% of people are obese.

Obesity is a really major disease, in line with HIV and malnutrition
Professor Arne Astrup
International Association for the Study of Obesity
Data is limited on many countries but Professor Arne Astrup, the president-elect of the International Association for the Study of Obesity, says the problem is very real.

"On an African level we see now that obesity is a really major disease, in line with HIV and malnutrition. And it's quite clear that malnutrition and obesity can co-exist at the same time and in the same country," she said.

"But now due to the very prevalent complications of obesity, namely type two diabetes, we are facing a very severe problem."

But it is not only processed food and lack of exercise that is making Africans fatter.

Traditionally seen as a sign of wealth, being fat now has another significance for people living here.

Aids has had the nickname "slim" in Africa for many years because it makes its victims literally waste away. As a result, people do not want to lose weight in case others think they are HIV-positive.

Lose a little

Losing between 5% to 10% of your weight can significantly improve your health, reducing the risk of diabetes, heart disease, cancer and increasing life expectancy.

Person on weighing scales
The obesity level in South Africa matches that of the US
Professor Phillip James, the chair of the International Obesity Task Force, says that the only way that we can manage obesity is to get governments involved.

"If you always think about fixing, whether it's HIV or obesity, by treating the final problem you're always going to be in a mess.

"We've got to take that lesson on board and see now how we have to change the whole way we allow cities to develop, where we don't produce cities where it's extremely difficult to exercise at all, and every turn that you make you've suddenly got a fast food outlet that's bombarding you with complete rubbish."

But Africa is not the only continent facing an obesity explosion.

About 25% of the people living in the Middle East are obese or overweight, while obesity has risen by 100% among Japanese men since 1982.

But what is worrying the specialists the most is the huge numbers of overweight children who are now developing diabetes.

The fattest children live in the Middle East, Chile, Greece and southern Italy.

If these children do not lose weight now, they will probably be suffering many of the diseases associated with old age in their 40s.




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