Undernutrition and obesity a 'double burden' in Africa: WHO study

Europe  AFP - Suliane Favennec
MAR 4, 2024 LISTEN
© AFP - Suliane Favennec

According to a World Health Organization study published by The Lancet medical journal, obesity has increased alarmingly in low and middle income countries, particularly in Africa. World Obesity Day, held on 4 March, aims to raise awareness around what the WHO describes as an "epidemic".

While some of the populations in Africa still face undernutrition, others no longer have this problem, but their diet is of poor quality and obesity is on the rise, according to a WHO study released last week by The Lancet medical journal.

In 2022, the WHO already warned of a "time bomb" for public health, pointed to ten countries particularly affected by weight gain, most of them in southern Africa: Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mauritius, Namibia, Seychelles and South Africa.

But also, further north: Gabon, Mauritania and Algeria, which holds the record for the highest number of obese people on the continent.


In 2021, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported that in Gabon, while 18 percent of children under the age of 5 suffered from chronic malnutrition, 40 percent of adults were overweight.

"I've put on a lot of weight in ten years", Ruth, 30, a diabetologist from Gabon told RFI.

"I think my weight has almost doubled. I've gone from 52 kg to almost 105 kg today. I've never been to the doctor, but I know I have a weight problem."

According to a study by Unicef and the Ministry of Health in 2023, 35 percent of schoolchildren in Gabon's main cities were obese.

"We are very concerned about the prevalence of obesity in schools, particularly in large cities, where we are seeing severe, morbid obesity in the very young", stresses Éric Baye, a Gabonese doctor.

Junk food

The chronic and complex illness is accompanied by a greater risk of death from heart disease and certain cancers.

Obesity is also a major risk factor for diabetes. And there are countries with higher prevalence rates, particularly in North Africa and South Africa.

Obesity primarily affects people living in urban areas, although rural areas are now also affected. The finger is pointed at junk food and a sedentary lifestyle.

Colette Azandjeme, a professor of public health and nutritionist at the Mother and Child Hospital in Cotonou, Benin, believes that one of the causes of obesity is "the nutritional transition that has seen our lifestyles change and become more westernised.

"We're moving from a much more traditional diet to a Europeanised, energy-dense diet. We're exposed to increasingly processed and ultra-processed foods," she says.

At the same time, our lifestyles have become more sedentary: "there is very little physical activity to compensate for this," says Azendjeme.

"Over time, we've lost the habit of walking a lot. There are more motorbikes, more cars.

"We sit in front of the television for longer. We adopt activities that are in offices: in sales, in commerce, where we sit for longer periods of time," she explains.

The World Obesity Day organisers say that an estimated 1.9 billion people will be living with obesity by 2035.