By HARBGUY MWAMBAZI –
THE old adage, ‘you are what you eat’, is very accurate in the modern day age, when there are many ailments associated with dietary habits.
Not too long ago, the ailments relating to eating habits which constituted major public health concerns were malnutrition-kwashiorkor, marasmus and others.
In present day, obesity levels amongst adolescents and teenagers are a source of concern, considering their preference for junk foods to healthy meals.
The social status and financial capacity a have a great bearing on the eating habits of most people in today’s world.
For example, one hand is a well paid banker who is able to afford fast foods for his children of school going age, while on the other, is an unemployed single mother who strives hard to provide only the basic meals to sustain her children.
According to the WHO overweight and obesity are abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that may impair health.
Body mass index (BMI) is a simple index of weight-for-height that is commonly used to classify overweight and obesity in adults.
It is defined as a person’s weight in kilogrammes divided by the square of his height in meters (kg/m2).
BMI greater than or equal to 25 is overweight and a BMI greater than or equal to 30 is obesity.
The BMI provides the most useful population-level measure of overweight and obesity as it is the same for both sexes and for all ages of adults.
However, it should be considered a rough guide because it may not correspond to the same degree of fatness in different individuals.
The fundamental cause of obesity and overweight is an energy imbalance between calories consumed and calories expended.
Globally, there has been an increased intake of energy-dense foods that are high in fat and an increase in physical inactivity due to the increasingly sedentary nature of many forms of work, changing modes of transportation, and increasing urbanization.
Changes in dietary and physical activity patterns are often the result of environmental and societal changes associated with development and lack of supportive policies in sectors such as health, agriculture, transport, urban planning, environment, food processing, distribution, marketing and education.
Common health consequences of overweight and obesity includes cardiovascular diseases (mainly heart disease and stroke), which were the leading cause of death in 2012 and diabetes.
Musculoskeletal disorders (especially osteoarthritis – a highly disabling degenerative disease of the joints some cancers (endometrial, breast, and colon) are other consequences of being obese.
Childhood obesity is associated with a higher chance of obesity, premature death and disability in adulthood.
But in addition to increased future risks, obese children experience breathing difficulties, increased risk of fractures, hypertension, early markers of cardiovascular disease, insulin resistance and psychological effects.
Anthony Phiri is a student at the University of Zambia, and his diet of nshima and vegetables, and in some instances proteins like beef, kapenta and fish, when finances permit.
He only indulges in what may be viewed as ‘elitist meals’ (fast foods) when he has a more disposable income.
This however does not apply to Catherine Banda a student at the University of Lusaka, whose lunch and supper consists of fatty foods such as sausages, chips, burgers and pizza.
In her view, these foods taste better than the conventional home cooked meals, a view perceived by many.
The high levels of poverty being experienced in Zambia have an influence in the dietary habits of some people.
It is believed that most people who strive from a poor background to a good social status in life tend to deviate from their previous healthy diets and adapt to new ones.
With an increase in income levels, coupled with the busy lifestyles which does not allow for adequate time to prepare cooked foods, many people in the middle and high income brackets have resorted to living on foods with high with high content of fat, sugar, and carbohydrates.
Mike Banda says before he got a ‘good’ job, his family was used to having nshima and other traditional foods, but later changed their pattern in diet and now eat fast foods on a regular basis.
This is not because Mr Banda is unaware of the risks associated with junk foods, but simply because he can afford to.
Many other citizens, especially the youthful population have been exposed to fast food outlets, through media advertisements which lure them into consuming unhealthy meals on a greater scale.
The argument on the increase of obesity amongst the Zambian teenagers was debated upon to one not having to incorporate a healthy aspect to their diet.
National Food and Nutrition Commission (NFNC) Chief Nutritionist and Head-Public health Freddie Mubanga attributed the seemingly increasing levels of obesity amongst teenagers to poor eating habits.
Fast foods have proved to be a great health concerns largely because of the high fat and calories they contain.
“These teenagers who have just completed their high schools and moving on to college lack the zeal of having good nutrition and eating healthy foods which has a lot of proteins, vitamins, and nutrients essential for the body”, he says.
It is fair to say that most youths and teenagers are busy with educational responsibilities that are piled upon them from their various colleges and universities which would strip them of time to cook and as a result resort to quick fast foods.
In some parts of the western world, obesity is now being considered a disability, rather than just a mere medical condition.
Obesity may be viewed as being highly retrogressive because it tends to limit the capacity of an individual to do more, owing to their weight.
Just recently the European Court of Justice was asked to consider the case of a male child-minder in Denmark who was allegedly fired from employment on account of his excess weight.
The court ruled that if obesity could hinder full and effective participation in professional life on an equal basis with other workers, then it qualifies to be classified a form of “disability”.
This rings a bell not only in Zambia but also to other nations around the world, who are trying to overcome the battle of obesity amongst teenagers.
Mr Mubanga says another factor contributing to obesity among teenagers is their lack of participation in physical activities (exercises) which should assist in burning excess body fat in order to keep healthy.
Poor eating habits adopted by many adolescents and youths, has further been exacerbated by their inactivity such as long hours of staying indoors, glued to television and social media platforms, thereby steadily increasing the amount of body fat they retain in their bodies.
However, there are parents like Samantha Nyirenda, who are determined to ensure that their families adopt healthy lifestyles.
She engages her children in regular physical exercise such as gardening, sport and other activities, to aid the burning of excess fat which builds over time.
Ms Nyirenda who encourages her children to eat more properly cooked healthy foods, is determined to ensure healthier living for her family.
According to research by the NFNC, excessive intake of carbohydrates and proteins in the human body, coupled with lack of physical activity, eventually converts into fat, and ultimately leading to obesity.
The research further reveals that the excess in fat stored in the body would give way to other health related complications such as heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, and others.
High blood cholesterol (blood fat) interferes with the functions of the heart which paves way for the blockage of blood arteries through which blood flows to the rest of the body, and could result in heart-attack.
Chairperson for Nutrition Association of Zambia Adrina Banda says teenagers are immune to poor digestion processes due to the large amounts of fast foods they consume.
She explains that these foods take about six to eight hours to fully digest, with much of it remaining undigested.
“Elimination of undigested food residue through the large intestine usually begins after a total of 24 hours.
Excess fat which is normally stored in the body due to lack of exercise lingers for a couple of weeks.
The complete elimination from the body may take several days if one has taken in large portions of fatty foods, and usually gives way to slow digestion”, she said.
She further added that teenagers between the ages of 13-20 are possible victims to obesity, as fat tends to stay longer in their bodies do to huge consumptions of fast foods.
Jordan Mukandawire 20, a student at ZICAS, is obese and admits to having consumed a lot of fast foods.
He has however, taken up physical exercises like jogging and gym sessions, as a measure aimed at reducing his body weight.
The issue of trying to combat obesity amongst teenagers in Zambia can be challenging but achievable, as a raised concern on a national outlook regards health for both the male and female teenagers.
Mr Mubanga says the demand for fat amongst pregnant and breastfeeding teenagers accounts for the high levels of obesity among this age group.
“If a teenage is undernourished or anemic and is pregnant, that on it’s on was problem.
An even bigger problem was one who was undernourished, pregnant and obese at the same time, requiring them to take in more foods with proteins with nutrients to help stabilize their body during pregnancy.”
Mr Mubanga said that the key to reducing obesity in Zambia is to ensure the consumption of healthy and properly prepared foods, increased physical exercises.
“The best thing for young one to do is to engage in exercise and keep themselves active, because that stage requires that their bodies are active, which will help them in reducing that excess fat that is stored.”
“The nutrition commission has always published material and brochures that have encouraged healthy eating towards the public, and has given them the opportunity to better enhance their knowledge on obesity and the possible outcomes associated”, he said.
There is need to heighten sensitisation campaigns to promote the consumption of healthy foods, across various sectors of the country’s economy.
In between now and then, the is need for concerted efforts amongst various stakeholders promoting health, and the adage still applies, ‘you are what you eat.