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Diabetes and Obesity: South Africa’s Healthcare Crisis

Diabetes and Obesity: South Africa’s Healthcare Crisis

November 14 is World Diabetes Day and this year, the condition has been under the microscope even more than usual thanks to leading sports scientist, and author of The Real Meal Revolution, Professor Tim Noakes.

Addressing parliament recently, Noakes stated that South Africa was sitting on a “time bomb”[1] if diabetes and obesity were not addressed. “I want us to all save South Africa; that’s what we are here to do. Because if we don’t reverse (the) obesity and diabetes epidemic, our nation disappears,” said Noakes. “And this is because we will go financially bankrupt because we don’t have the money to provide medical services in the near future.”[2]

Dr Larry Distiller, a world renowned endocrinologist, who specialises in diabetes, and the founder of the The Centre for Diabetes and Endocrinology, also recently commented that “the diabetes tsunami is here.”[3]

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune condition that affects approximately 5–10% of people with diabetes.[4] The other 90–95% of diabetics suffer from type 2 diabetes, a condition caused by a combination of bad eating habits, weight gain, and a lack of exercise that leads firstly to insulin resistance and later to diabetes.[5] Three-and-a-half million South Africans currently suffer from diabetes, with many more still undiagnosed.[6]

Alison Vienings, Executive Director of the Self-Medication Manufacturers Association of South Africa (SMASA), points out, “People with a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 30 or more are up to 80 times more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than people with a BMI of less than 22.[7] South Africa is currently on track to becoming one of the most obese nations in the world. Regrettably, it already holds the title of the fattest country in sub-Saharan Africa.”[8]

World Health Organisation predictions are that the incidence of obesity-driven diabetes in sub-Saharan Africa will double in the next 20 years.[9]

Clearly, action is necessary, but what? According to Noakes, the way to address the current situation is through a high-fat, high-protein diet and by consuming less sugar and processed food, and fewer carbohydrates – an approach that has been met with a range of responses.

Government on the other hand is considering introducing a sugar tax on sugar sweetened beverages (SSBs)[10] that will hopefully make South Africans think twice before consuming them. A research paper by academics from the University of the Witwatersrand predicts that such a move may lead to a decrease of more than 220 000 obese adults in South Africa.[11]

According to Vienings, responsible self-care can help stem the tide of both diabetes and obesity in South Africa. “Detecting diabetes early, getting the right medical care, eating healthily and exercising regularly can reduce the risk of developing complications associated with the disease,[12]” she explains, “Similarly, watching what you eat and committing to a regular exercise programme can prevent obesity, which so often leads to type 2 diabetes.”

In conclusion, she strongly recommends a visit to your local healthcare professional or doctor immediately, if you display any or all of the symptoms associated with diabetes, or are concerned that your BMI may be higher than it should be.