Obesity on the rise in rural communities

Junkfood. Photo: Thomas Pierce/Health-e News.

Obesity has almost tripled in the last 40 years, and conventional wisdom is that city living is the culprit. However, a new study covering 112-million adults across urban and rural areas of 200 countries, suggests weight gain in rural areas is actually the biggest driver of the growing global prevalence of obesity.

The study by researchers from the NCD Risk Factor Collaboration (NCD-RisC), published in Nature journal, found the rising body-mass index (BMI) of people living in rural areas has increased the epidemic in adults across the world.    

Obesity has been seen as an urban issue, partly because city residents have an array of options for buying highly-processed foods and beverages, which are high in salt, saturated fat and sugar.

Traditional food

Rural areas, on the other hand, have been seen as a type of food desert, where people mainly consume produce from farms and gardens. But findings indicate that the levels of obesity are increasing faster in rural areas, and researchers say this is probably because there’s been a shift from traditional food to highly-processed food.

Themba Mathe (31) holding his kota. Photo: Mogale Mojela/Health-e

Health-e News spoke to some South Africans in rural areas to find out what food they eat. Themba Mathe (31) from the Tzaneen village Khujwana in Limpopo, was eating a kota, a South African fast food which includes a fatty combination of polony, Vienna sausage, cheese and atchar stuffed in a hollowed-out quarter loaf of white bread. Mathe told OurHeath that he’s aware that eating too much junk food has health risks, but that doesn’t concern him very much.

“Kota tastes real good. It can keep me full almost the whole day and I can eat it on the go. I know it’s unhealthy but I cannot help it. I’m aware that this food will probably kill me one day, but when I indulge I don’t think much about the future,” he said.

Health complications

Kenny Khumalo (34), also in Tzaneen, who was feasting on fish and chips with bread and a frizzy drink, says he didn’t realise that certain foods can cause health complications.

“I was not aware that the food I eat can cause me to have diabetes or a heart attack. I eat to satisfy my hunger. I eat this sort of food when I am too lazy to cook,” he said.

Khumalo doesn’t exercise much due to time constraints.

Aubrey Musa Sibuyi from Mpumalanga knows about the importance of sticking to a healthy diet. Sibuyi has high blood pressure and lives with HIV. He says on weekends his family eats takeaways.

“I am supposed to live a healthy lifestyle but because I work as a driver, I usually eat junk food. For breakfast, I normally eat a burger from McDonald’s and for lunch KFC chicken or chips with cheese and a Russian. It’s quick and I can eat while driving,” he says.

Sibuyi says his children used to buy kota, chips and fizzy drinks from the school tuckshop – until he prevented them from taking their pocket money to school.  


Anna Zulu, who is also from Mpumalanga, depends on a social grant, and the food she buys is based on its affordability. Zulu’s monthly grocery consists of basics like 25kg of maize meal, 12kg of white sugar, 5kg cooking oil, and potatoes – 7kg every week. The children in her house eat pap and fried chips daily because she says, it’s cost effective.

“I am not aware of the ingredients in the food because what matters is that we eat. Reading food labels is for those who went to school but not for the uneducated, like me,” she says.

Sinazo Mgoyi from Flagstaff in the Eastern Cape likes fried chips and says she cannot go a day without eating a plate of the oily meal.

North West radio presenter, Prince Lesenyego, says he has been warned many times about the health dangers of junk food but cravings make it difficult for him not to have a kota or a bunny chow at least four times a week. “I love bunny chows. I was once told to stop eating them because of my high blood pressure, but I keep eating them,” he says as he bites into one outside a popular bunny chow outlet in Ikageng township. – Health-e News

Additional reporting by Mogale Mojela, Cynthia Maseko, Graeme Makam and Asavela Dalana.

An edited version of this story was published by Health24.


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