When most Americans think of Africa, they think of starvation, drought, and disease. Ironically, this continent is now seeing obesity rates growing. The problem is due to the new lifestyles, and the idea that being large is beautiful.

Over one-third of African women and one-fourth of African men are believed to be overweight. The World Health Organization believes that the number of Africans overweight or obese will rise to 41 percent and 30 percent respectively within the next 10 years.

Obesity rates are higher in South Africa. Almost 56 percent of South African women are either obese or overweight compared to 10 percent that are underweight. This is not only affecting adults, but also adolescents. About 25 percent of teen girls and 17 percent of all adolescents are overweight.

The problems are due to local diets that are typically high in starches and sugars. Fast food and soda are just as popular in Africa as they are in the U.S. Unlike the U.S., which has been making numerous efforts to educate the population about a healthy weight vs. obesity and the health problems that are associated therewith, African nations do little to educate their populations on the dangers of obesity.

Like many of their developing-world counterparts, Africans are proud to be obese. In societies stricken by decades of poverty and inequity, obesity is seen as beautiful and a sign of wealth and status. If you are fatter, then you are richer, higher on the economic hierarchy of your community.

This doesn’t mean Africans are ignorant to the virtues of weight loss. Many Africans confess they would like to lose weight but worry about what others would say and think. One African woman says that she is worried about losing weight because then people would assume she had tuberculosis or AIDS, two diseases that can make one an outcast in African society.

Urbanization is on the rise in Africa, which has led to less walking and physical exercise in general. Cultural problems, like viewing the refusal of food as impolite, might also be linked to the rise in obesity.

Obesity, of course, is not attributable solely to behavior. Children born to underweight mothers, a common occurrence in African families, tend to have a greater risk of being overweight when they reach adulthood. They are also more prone to obesity because family members give them more food to help them compensate.

In a cruel twist, the continent once known solely for severe under-nutrition must also deal now with over-nutrition as well. Even though the obesity rates are lower in Sub-Saharan Africa than many developed countries, officials worry that, with health systems already stretched by AIDS and other diseases, they will buckle with additional burdens like heart disease, strokes, and diabetes, all of which have been linked to obesity.

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