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15.05.2008 Feature Article

Why That Potbelly Could Kill You!

Why That Potbelly Could Kill You!

Although human beings come in various shapes and sizes, certain bodily features, especially in people over the age of 35, could be a sign of trouble. A potbelly, once a symptom of the good life, has now been proven to be a sign of impending danger, especially in men. Growing up in Ghana, I always associated a bulging belly with financial wealth ― millions of Ghanaians still subscribe to this erroneous trend of reasoning ― but today I know better. Because almost all of the materials published in this article are from scholarly sources, I will strongly urge my readers to embrace the message with all the seriousness it deserves.

Potbelly and the Role of Gender

Writing for the journal Science News in 1988, D.D. Edwards notes: “Too much fat can be dangerous, causing increased risk of heart disease, diabetes and stroke. Studies have shown that a male-pattern weight gain ― concentrated primarily in the abdomen area ― is associated with more heart disease than is a female-type weight gain concentrated in the thighs and buttocks. The exact reasons for this are unclear.” Twenty years later, nothing has changed as far as the dangers of belly fat are concerned. Perhaps, this trend of fat accumulation in humans is one reason women generally live longer than men, irrespective of race and geographical location. Some women also develop belly fat as they age, but most women store excess fat in their hips, thighs and buttocks, as explained by D.D. Edwards.

A June 25, 2002, report in The Washington Post decries the ever-widening girth of American men, and blames it on “chowing down or drinking up” excessively. The report adds: “There's a reason for [the potbelly problem]: Men tend to store excess fat in the gut, while women tend to store it in the butt and thighs. There are, of course, women with potbellies. Frequently, they attribute them to the aftereffects of pregnancy, even if they last gave birth during the Ford administration.”

Social and Cultural Issues

Even now, some Ghanaians still consider middle-aged men with protruding bellies a financially successful segment of society. In fact, some women are easily fooled by the “big belly syndrome” into believing that they have found mates who will serve both as life-long partners and providers, but nothing could be more deceiving. With poverty the hallmark of the Ghanaian society, the pot-bellied suitor who has given the damsel of his dreams no rest may simply be filling up his belly with the wrong stuff to temporarily drown his sorrows! While I do not suggest that a woman accept a man's marriage proposal on the premise that he will be able to fully provide her with all of life's basic needs, she ought to not delude herself into thinking that his protruding belly is equal to wealth!

That a potbelly is synonymous with wealth is a perception many Western societies also hold. Jeremy Langmead, in an article published in the August 15, 2007, issue of the London Guardian, explains it this way: “A pot belly used to be a badge of pride for middle-aged men. It was a sign of success; it suggested you had an agreeable expense account and were high enough up the corporate ladder to indulge in a spot of client entertaining. A pot belly was evidence that you enjoyed the finer things in life and men would proudly pat their bulging stomachs at the end of a meeting or a good meal and boast, with a wink: 'It's all paid for.'” Now we know that a bulging belly is a vessel for life-threatening diseases!

Potbellies and Serious Health Risks

In addition to life-threatening diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and stroke, scientists have now established a link between a widening girth and some other health problems. Mark Teich, in an article published in the September-October 2007 edition of the journal Psychology Today, warns that men who are overweight tend to generate excessive heat, which leads to a reduction in the level of testosterone in their sperm. And the bigger a man's belly, the greater the testosterone problem.

Heart disease is also directly associated with erectile dysfunction, the latter a problem some middle-aged men are prone to, with its embarrassing consequences. Nothing could hurt a man's ego more, perhaps irreversibly, than for him to get ready for action, only for “Junior” to not “show up for work!” So, one can see the trend: obesity (a potbelly in this case) leads to heart disease, and heart disease leads to erectile dysfunction!

A team of Kaiser Permanente scientists has recently established a link between potbellies and dementia (memory loss) in middle-aged people. The lead scientist, Rachel Whitmer, warns people to be wary more of where they store their body fat, rather than how much fat they have. The aforesaid study, published in the April 2008 edition of the journal Neurology, “measured the sagittal abdominal diameter, or (in laymen's terms, how far the potbelly sticks out), of 6,583 men and women in their 40s from 1964 to 1973, then looked at their records an average of 36 years later, when they found 1,049 dementia cases.”

News Reports from Around the World

Africa News: A few years ago, a former first deputy premier of Uganda sued a local newspaper, The Monitor, for what the deputy premier alleged was a case of defamation against him. In the said article, which portrayed the link between potbellies and impotence, the deputy premier's photo was attached to the story without permission, making it appear as though the deputy premier was impotent, due to the size of his girth! Well, the deputy premier shot back, reminding the entire nation that he was still virile enough to be the father of 30 children (and still counting!) and the husband of four wives! The controversy, however, got the desired effect: Ugandans received an education about the dangers and consequences of having a potbelly!

The Irish Times: In a March 27, 2008, publication, David McNeill discusses a recent Japanese government legislation that requires all Japanese men over 40 to take part in mandatory “fat checks!” Although a nation with one of the world's highest life expectancies, the Japanese government has decided to do more to ensure a healthier population. Can Ghanaian leaders learn something here? McNeill adds: “Aimed at trimming bulging annual health costs of over $3 billion, the [Health Ministry of Japan] says from [April 2008] about 56 million people must start keeping waistlines tucked in or be asked to change diet, see a doctor and possibly pay higher insurance costs. The plan for the potbelly police sets a waist limit of 85 cm [33.5 inches] for men and 90 cm [35.4 inches] for women.”

London's Daily Mail: An October 2007 article published in the Daily Mail by Fiona MacRae shows that “one soya-based drink a day can reduce a potbelly,” according to researchers. I am not sure if soya-based products are readily available to the average person in Ghana, but in the absence of soya-based items, Ghanaians can eat more fruits and drink plenty of water, rather than indulge excessively in the consumption of beer and other unhealthy products.

Australia's Brisbane News: Loretta Douris, in a February 25, 2004, article, confirms an already established, but alarming, fact: “on average, men can expect to live six years less than women and working men die from non-sex-specific diseases at twice the rate of women.” Douris continues: “Why worry about a pot belly? [Well], [f]at, unlike muscle, is not active tissue, [so] this puts extra strain on the heart, which supplies nutrients to that dead load.”

New York's Newsday: Delthia Ricks, writing in the November 1, 2007, edition of the Newsday, warns Americans about a recent study that shows the link between potbellies and certain cancers. According to Ricks, “[s]cientists with the American Institute for Cancer Research and the World Cancer Research Fund in Britain have analyzed thousands of recent studies,” and have concluded that “[f]at, especially in the mid-section, can increase the production of hormones that drive development and growth of cancer cells.”

The Potbelly Burden and Solutions for Ghana

To assume that the incidence of potbellies in about one-half of all Ghanaian men over age 40 is of little significance to the national government is, indeed, imprudent. Because a potbelly is a risk factor for several others diseases ― diabetes, dementia, heart disease, impotence, et cetera ― getting the population informed about the dangers of a potbelly (and obesity in general) cannot be trivialized. If the Ministry of Health has not already begun the education of Ghanaians about the need to stay fit and avoid becoming overweight, then it has to commence the campaign immediately. With a comparatively low life expectancy, Ghana's leaders can no longer afford to sit idle while the nation's most educated workers ― middle-aged men ― continue to perish from preventable diseases.

Additionally, it costs both private and public employers millions of dollars annually in lost productivity when workers miss work for long periods, so getting the nation's labor force to be in the best of health serves the interests of all. A sustained education of the population about the dangers of obesity will yield positive results in the long run. Tackling and solving the potbelly issue will eventually help harness the maximum potential of the nation's workforce for economic prosperity and growth.

Without a doubt, the present administration ― and all future administrations, for that matter ― must consider the health of the nation's middle-aged men and women a top priority. If our nation is to realize its socio-economic goals by 2030, it must invest a substantial part of its resources into touting the benefits of preventive medicine, as this approach ultimately tends to be less expensive than the pursuit of curative medicine alone. With the life expectancy of Ghanaians hovering around a paltry 58 years (it is 81 years in Japan!), how many more brilliant minds ― fathers and brothers and uncles ― must we lose prematurely to the frosty hands of death before we decide it is time to take action?

The writer, Daniel K. Pryce, holds a master's degree in public administration from George Mason University, U.S.A. He is a member of the national honor society for public affairs and administration in the U.S.A. He can be reached at [email protected]

Daniel K. Pryce
Daniel K. Pryce, © 2008

The author has 105 publications published on Modern Ghana. Column Page: DanielKPryce

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