#3rd world problems. Obesity too?

For some reason, people are making more noise about the rising rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease in Africa. The irony isn’t lost on anyone that, even as many people on our continent struggle to feed themselves properly everyday, we now have another section that seems to be eating themselves to an early grave. We are going through a ‘nutrition transition’ as the UN puts it.

The statistics, in my opinion, are a bit dodgy but we are definitely on an upward swing. And no, its not just South Africa and the Northern states.

If you live in a city anywhere in Africa, it’s pretty obvious that people are getting larger. We are still a long way from reaching the terrifying proportions found in some places, namely the US of A, land of the free and land of refined carbohydrates and sugar and additives and everything that is wrong with industrialized agriculture, but we aren’t safe.

Do we really need to worry about extra inches round our middles, or what we eat? The thing is, there isn’t much social stigma attached to being overweight in Africa. Here, you are rarely fat. You are big, you are healthy, you carry a ‘wide load’, you are plump, you have a big booty, etc. You will never lack suitors just because you don’t look like a Cosmo cover girl.

Only problem is, being overweight carries the risk of developing type 2 diabetes later on in life. Diabetes is basically when your pancreas give up after riding the sugar train for too long. Blindness, amputations, kidney failure and other nasty side effects are basically glucose poisoning. My grandma has diabetes. I can count at least two relatives who succumbed to it, and it’s not a pretty way to go.

Living in Africa (yes, I said Africa, with its many countries and diverse peoples and I know how many countries there are) means that, to some extent, we are protected from some of the more atrocious food crimes, such as antibiotic soaked meat, e-coli in salad vegetables and we aren’t exactly being avalanched by nutritionally worthless but calorie dense fast foods.

And of course there is the idea that our ‘traditional’ diets are very healthy, and that if we eat like this then we will live to be 120 like our great grandparents. Except that it’s not very true anymore. (Interesting study that compared Maasais with rural and urban Bantus and their overall body composition of Maasais, urban and rural Bantus to find out who would be the chubbiest.)

Living and working in a typical African city usually means wasting huge chunks of your day stuck in traffic, getting home late, and basically checking out in front of the tv or with a beer. Which is fine, because trying to go for a jog in Nairobi is ridiculous.

But it also means that we probably did not notice the creep in our diets: more refined carbs, more junk food, more options to eat out, more beer, more processed foods that contain hidden sugar, more soft drinks, etc, all the while buying bigger and bigger pants. 

Our diets, already pretty heavy on the starches: I’m talking about maize in all its disguises, which isn’t as traditional as we are led to believe: ugali, sadza, paap, whatever you want to call it, its the same.

And now we  have even more added carbs that turn into sugar in our bodies: living on wheat and maize and potatoes and cooking oil does not constitute being on our ‘traditional’ diet.  (Pdf on history of food in East Africa)

The  thing is, with the amount of pure carbohydrates and sugar we eat, and the lack of movement, we start to exhaust our pancreas.

Over the short term, an appetite out of whack, weight gain and inexplicable cravings.

Long term?

Diabetes and ‘lifestyle diseases’.

Learn about proper nutrition. Take charge of your health today.

How to set yourself up for success (Sidestep the holiday guilt and overcompensation.)

Christmas/New Year is the only holiday that I truly love (unlike the rest, which are really just days off from routine..) There is Christmas itself, with that warm happy feeling you get, being with your friends, family and everyone is determined to outshine each other’s Christmas parties.

And then there is New Year’s when you remember all the good and the bad times from the year, and you are full of hope for the next year- you know, because this time you will be perfect and awesome and everything will be amazing.

For about 7 years straight, I would set myself a new goal: lose weight. Then I would dream about how skinny and fabulous I would be. If I did it for 7 years, you can imagine just how successful I was in this area. This year, that goal will not appear on my list. Finally.

Here are a couple of things to consider if you want to take advantage of New Year’s surging hope to set yourself up for success when it comes to weight-loss:

Health is a decision, not a goal

Leave the SMART stuff in the boardroom. Getting healthy (and losing weight) is a decision that has to be committed to. If the internet is to be believed, losing weight is pretty easy. Just go on an ice-cream diet and let that lactose intolerance take care of the rest.

The thing about losing weight is that it’s hard, and it takes time. A lot of time. You are fighting against years of habits, your own body’s resistance to shedding fat, hormone imbalances and the general shittiness that is life sometimes. (Who cares about losing weight when you can’t find a job? Or when you are fighting with your boyfriend?)

But once you decide to make your health a priority, you can begin to make adjustments that will gradually move you towards what you want to be. The other day, I attended a Christmas party. The table was loaded with chocolate and sugary desserts. If I was on diet, I might have had a few and then gone home and beaten myself up about it. But the reality is, people will keep inviting me out to eat crap with them. So I had coffee and took pictures. And if not now, then when?

Get yourself informed

Nutritional information is a mess right now. Your skinny friends will tell you to eat as much as you want and then do sit ups. You might be tempted to buy some weight loss tea.

Prophets on the internet will cry out: stop eating meat! Go vegetarian! No, meat is good for you!  Count your calories! Don’t count them, do cardio four hours a week! Don’t eat starchy foods! Eat starchy foods! Snack throughout the day! Eat only three times!

Jesus Christ. I can say that only three things are the solid truth:

1. You are what you eat: If you are overweight, you are probably eating too many calories. That’s a fact.(I spent several years convincing myself that actually it’s my genetics. It wasn’t). They could be from food, alcohol or all that other stuff we like to drink that isn’t water. Figure that shit out.

2. Exercise is good for you: My doctor informed me that exercise is not really the most important part of weight loss. And that 80% of your body composition actually comes from what you eat.

That being said, regular exercise helps in subtle ways: it releases hormones that make you feel good, helps stabilize your insulin levels, improves your circulation and a host of other things that move you closer to optimum health. But remember: unless you will spend 5 or 6 hours every week doing high intensity sprints, no way in hell are you going to ‘burn’ all the excess calories you consume.

3. Sugar is not your friend: Too much glucose in your blood can be life threatening, which is why we produce insulin, which helps your body convert excess sugar into fat. Basically, too much sugar in your diet wrecks havoc with your insulin levels, which in turn ruin your natural appetite control, which makes you eat more and more without your body stopping you.

But it doesn’t stop there: our brains respond to sugar in the same way as if we were taking drugs. (Complex explanation and easier to read one) This hormonal chaos explains why we crave chocolate, and not cabbage.

Obvious suspects like table sugar and fizzy drinks aside, there is one more enemy lurking out there: refined carbohydrates. Stripped of fibre, all that is left in flour, maize meal, pasta and bread is…yep..sugar.

The good news is, the less sugar you have in your diet, the less you crave it.

4.Get some support: I have almost no self control. I know this. In any case, it took a medical professional to sit me down and set me straight. If you can, get a partner. If not, subscribe to blogs online. My two favourite are Mark and Erika . Of course, I use my own judgement and pick and choose what information works for me..but still, information is power.

Don’t stress too much. Don’t set crazy goals and don’t beat yourself up about it. When it comes to good health, focus on the little habits. They are the ones that count.

Merry Christmas!