UP EXPERT OPINION: Tackling obesity and inactivity can alleviate SA’s escalating diabetes crisis

Posted on October 20, 2023

Obesity and inactivity, twin adversaries of health, have surged to the forefront of our daily lives. An estimated 39% of adults worldwide are overweight, while 13% grapple with obesity, a condition that significantly raises the risk of diabetes. In South Africa, the picture does not look much better: one in nine South Africans are affected by diabetes; the country has the second-highest number of people living with type 2 diabetes in sub-Saharan Africa; and high blood pressure (or hypertension) is twice as likely to affect a person with diabetes than someone without it.

These staggering statistics compel us to action. The need for South Africans to adopt healthier lifestyles to mitigate the burgeoning diabetes epidemic is undeniable – the decisions we make today about what to eat and when and how to be active can either promote health and well-being or drive non-communicable diseases.   

Key challenges to living a healthy life

In South Africa, a complex web of challenges hinder the adoption of healthier lifestyles. Economic disparities, limited access to nutritious foods and historical inequalities make it that much harder for most South Africans to make better lifestyle choices. Many are often unable to afford or access healthy food options, and live in an environment where beneficial behaviours are difficult to adopt or maintain. For example, in a recent study, women from a well-known township voiced their concerns about safety while exercising in the streets. 

Additionally, load-shedding has been having an impact on the dietary habits of South Africans. There has been a noticeable rise in fast food consumption, as this presents fewer undisrupted opportunities to prepare fresh meals at home.  

Creating a healthier society 

Acknowledging the barriers is the first step to dismantling them. Collaborative efforts by the government, society, academia, private and public healthcare providers, and community leaders need to be expanded and strengthened to steer South Africa towards a healthier future. Communities are making use of shared gardens and communal fitness programmes, which not only promote healthier living but also build a sense of unity. Such initiatives need to be scaled with support from local and community leaders. 

The government holds the power to enact policies, notably, the National Strategic Plan for the Prevention and Control of Non-communicable Diseases, and to incentivise the production and consumption of wholesome foods while cultivating safe environments that are conducive to exercise. All stakeholders need to promote and enable healthy food and activity choices, and dissuade the consumption of convenience foods, which result in an increase in high-fat, high-salt and high-sugar foods in the family diet.  

The 2023 Diabetes Summit as a catalyst for change

Amid these challenges and opportunities, the 2023 Diabetes Summit, which is taking place at the University of Pretoria (UP) on Wednesday, 15 November, aims to propel all stakeholders involved in diabetes prevention and management – from intention to action and policy to practice – to confront diabetes head on. The summit is being jointly hosted by the South African Diabetes Alliance and UP’s Diabetes Research Centre at the University’s at the Future Africa Institute.  

In line with the summit’s theme, ‘Diabetes Targets, Translating Policy into Reality’, the event will focus on how the National Strategic Plan’s 90-60-50 cascade, which underscores the importance of early detection and treatment of diabetes and hypertension, can be supported. This cascade aims to ensure that 90% of all people over 18 will know whether or not they have raised blood pressure and/or raised blood glucose; 60% of people with raised blood pressure or blood glucose will receive intervention; and 50% of people receiving interventions are controlled. 

Addressing the diabetes crisis through a focus on health and vitality also opens up an opportunity for transformation. The summit aims to emphasise the importance of a whole-of-society approach in promoting healthy lifestyles, making them attainable for all and expanding healthcare services to work towards preventing diabetes. 

Each stride towards better health and every conscious decision and intervention is a step away from type 2 diabetes and a step closer to improved diabetes management. 

Lizanne Meyer is a registered dietitian at the University of Pretoria’s Sport, Exercise Medicine and Lifestyle Institute, and Dr Patrick Ngassa Piotie of UP’s Diabetes Research Centre.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the University of Pretoria.


Register for the Diabetes Summit

For information about the summit, contact Dr Patrick Ngassa Piotie at [email protected]

- Author Lizanne Meyer and Dr Patrick Ngassa Piotie

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