MANY Zambians perceive being â€˜largeâ€™ as a marker for good health and financially sound status, yet this condition poses the greatest health risk of one contracting a non-communicable disease.
In Zambia, like many other low-income countries, there has been more concentration on tackling under-nutrition among children than over-nutrition, thus somehow over-shadowing the growing challenge of overweight among adults.
This country has been experiencing under-nutrition for a long time, with stunted growth remaining stubbornly high especially in children despite the high gross domestic product (GDP) growth in the recent past.
The GDP, bolstered by mining revenue, has been growing at around five to seven per cent per year for the last six years.
In fact, the World Bank in 2012 declared Zambia a â€˜lower middle incomeâ€™ country, with poverty levels having dropped significantly from 40 per cent to 26 per cent in urban areas in the last 20 years.
However, in rural areas poverty levels have remained high at 78 per cent, hence the need for scaling up nutrition in these areas.
It is clear that there is an affluent and growing middle class in the country, and it is amongst this income group that we have seen a remarkable increase in overweight adults, which includes an increase in abdominal obesity.
According to Rudatsikira et al. International Archives of Medicine study on prevalence and correlates of obesity among Lusaka residents, a population-based survey of 2012, a total of 14.2 percent (5.1 percent male and 18.6 percent among women) participants were obese.
These figures are higher compared to those in Malawi (10 percent), Tanzania (13 percent) and Namibia (13 per cent).
The findings from this study indicate that women are more at risk of being obese. Available data suggest that Zambia, like many other middle to low-income countries, may be experiencing an upsurge of non-communicable medical conditions such as heart-related diseases and diabetes.
According to the study the prevalence of hypertension is at 34.8 per cent among Lusaka residents and impaired glucose level or diabetes of 4.0 per cent.
Both generalised and abdominal obesity are associated with the increased risk of morbidity and mortality among the population in Zambia.
Globally, there has been an increase in abdominal obesity, Zambia inclusive.
This kind of obesity has been discovered to have the highest risk in non-communicable diseases, especially the cardiovascular diseases such as strokes, hypertension, heart failure and high blood pressure.
The study also reveals that obesity has complications that include glucose tolerance, reduced insulin sensitivity and adverse lipid profiles which are risk factors for diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.
Therefore the risk of diabetes in adults increases continuously with increasing overweight.
According to the report, a careful analysis of the relationship between obesity and adult-onset diabetes confirms that abdominal obesity is an important risk factor.
Obesity results from unhealthy diet and poor eating habits leading to consumption of more calories than the amount that the body can burn.
However, there are also other factors such as inactivity.
If youâ€™re not very active, you donâ€™t burn as many calories.
With a sedentary lifestyle, you can easily take in more calories every day than you use through exercise and normal daily activities.
Obesity can sometimes be traced to a medical cause, such as Prader-Willi syndrome, Cushingâ€™s syndrome and other diseases and conditions.
Some medical problems such as arthritis can lead to decreased activity, which may result in weight gain. A low metabolism is unlikely to cause obesity, as is having low thyroid function.
What should one do about it?
Make health food choices such as;
Eating less fatty meat and oily foods such chips and fried foods.
Avoid eating too much carbohydrates (nshima, bread, rice, porridge, corn).
Choose to eat nutrient-dense foods rich in nutrients, low in calories, fat free, low fat milk etc.
Eating high-fibre foods such as fruits and green vegetables, brown bread, roller meal.
Reducing on portions or sizes of meals.
Be physically active such as going hiking, dancing with your spouse, walking in the morning etc.
The National Food and Nutrition Commission has since 1967 been mandated to promote food and nutrition activities and advises the government on such matters.
It provides nutritional counselling at health centres and health eating messages are being promoted through various media.
It is now crucial that interventions to address obesity and diet-related non-communicable diseases be considered a priority in the coming years.
The author is communications officer at National Food and Nutrition Commission.