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Messaging around obesity urgently needs to change: NCD Alliance CEO

Written by Marcia Zali

Obesity has been classified as as an extremely serious health condition yet the stigma and messaging stand in the way of addressing it.

Obesity needs to be seen as more than just a lifestyle disease and how we treat it needs to reflect this, said Dr Vicki Pinkney-Atkinson, CEO of the South African Non-Communicable Disease Alliance.

“Obesity is not just a lifestyle issue, it’s a complicated illness, it is probably the leading cause globally of morbidity and mortality from COVID-19,” said Pickney-Atkinson. “We’ve got to treat it in a holistic way and we’ve got to treat obesity as one illness,” she added.

Pickney-Atkinson was speaking at a webinar on Thursday hosted by the Socio-Economic Rights Project at the Dullah Omar Institute at the University of the Western Cape. It was the first webinar in a series on ‘Human Rights and Non-Communicable Diseases in South Africa.’

A non-communicable diseases (NCD) is defined as  “medical condition or disease which by definition is non-infectious and cannot be passed from person to person.” These also include diabetes, cancer and heart disease.

Pinkney-Atkinson believes that changing the view and approach to dealing with the condition is the first step towards addressing it.

What are obesity and NCDs

According to Mayo Clinic, obesity is a complex disease involving an excessive amount of body fat. It is a health concern,  not a cosmetic concern,.  Obesity is also a gateway to other diseases and health problems such as heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and certain cancers.

The World Health Organisation categorises adults as overweight with a BMI (body mass index) greater or equal to 25, while obesity is a BMI greater or equal to 30.

In South Africa 70% of all South African women over the age of 35 are overweight or obese, according to the South African Medical Research Council. NCDs account for up to 51% of all deaths in South Africa, yet obesity has often been referred to as just a lifestyle disease.

Impact of COVID-19 on obesity

COVID-19 has shown the devastating impact of obesity, said Pinkney-Atkinson. Patients living with the condition saw their health deteriorating quicker than those without the condition.

“Its impact is that you get COVID-19 sooner, you get ill sooner and you are more likely to die from obesity. Do we collect statistics on it? No and that’s the tragedy.”

Often young girls and women are bombarded with messages on how their bodies should look. These types of messages are problematic according to Pinkney-Atkinson.

“From the time women are young, they are given messages about how they should look, we have to re-frame it to say that your body is your body and you can do something about it,” she said.

Policy and funding for NCDs has also been found to be lacking with inadequate budget allocations to address the growing burden.

“I believe that it is a fundamental problem because nowhere are NCDs actually line items at provincial budgets so we have to do a fundamental rethink of the way we fund NCDs and the hope for that perhaps lies in the NHI and only if the NHI is reframed in a way in which we are looking at the priorities that are for health in the country,” she added. – Health-e News

About the author

Marcia Zali