While the intention of lockdown regulations and physical distancing was to contain the spread of COVID-19, the unintended consequences have been an economic crisis, record-high unemployment and a “plumper” population.
A national survey conducted in the last two months among almost 2 000 South African adults paints a dire picture:
- 45 percent of respondents said lockdown regulations impacted their eating and exercise habits for the worse.
- 44 percent picked up between two to five kilograms, 15 percent are six to 10 kg heavier, while four percent gain more than 10 kgs.
- 58 percent of family members (spouse/children) also packed on a few pounds.
- Increased weight gain in 15 percent of pets were also reported, which has equally real health consequences.
- 34 percent said their diet consists mainly of takeout and ready-made meals, while a further 30 percent said they eat what they can afford since their income has been impacted.
- 42 percent are exercising less than before the pandemic.
- 59 percent are currently on medication for a comorbidity such as heart disease, diabetes or hypertension.
The survey was commissioned by Pharma Dynamics – the largest provider of cardiovascular medicine in the country – to assess the effect of the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown on the nation’s eating and exercise patterns.
Nicole Jennings, spokesperson for Pharma Dynamics, says they are concerned about the long-term, negative effects that lockdown regulations have on SA’s obesity epidemic.
“Treats and calories are up, while exercise is down, which is never a healthy combination,” Jennings notes. “Limited access to daily grocery shopping may have led to reduced consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables in favour of highly processed food.”
“In times of stress and uncertainty, people also find solace in comfort food, which tends to be low in nutritional value and high in carbohydrates, fats, salt and sugar,” she adds.
Of the respondents who participated, 43 percent attributed their change in eating habits to stress and anxiety over what the future holds, while 42 percent said that being confined to their homes also led to more snacking and impulsive eating. Roughly 28 percent of respondents simply ate out of boredom. Jennings says the constant bombardment of COVID-19-related news is stressful, which leads to overeating.
“Comfort foods can reduce stress as they encourage dopamine production, which has a positive effect on mood, although, they’re not good for your health,” she explains.
The nation’s jump in weight the last 12 months significantly increases the population’s risk of hypertension, which already stood at 35 percent before the pandemic.
Jennings notes that participants were asked to calculate their body mass index (BMI) – a measure of your weight compared to your height. The findings indicated that 69 percent (almost seven in ten) respondents polled, ranged between overweight and obese.
“Female obesity rates align with previous data collected in 2019 by another health provider, but men seem to have really struggled with their weight during the pandemic. Based on our survey, obesity rates among men climbed by 40 percent.”
The lockdown has also expanded children’s waistlines. Interrupted schooling and extra-curricular activities have led to 43 percent more screen time as many parents had to attend to work responsibilities leaving children to their own devices. Children have also become more sedentary, and many adopted unhealthy eating habits in the process.
The SA National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) currently reports a combined overweight and obesity prevalence of 13,5 percent in children between the ages of six to 14 years – about 10 percent higher than the global prevalence.
“The likelihood of hypertension developing in those who are obese is almost certain and it can result in serious health problems that are even more life-threatening than COVID-19,” says Jennings. “To put it into context, every year, 10 million people die due to hypertension complications alone – almost four times more than those who have died from COVID-19.
“While COVID-19 remains a public health threat, concurrent epidemics, should not be neglected. The same attention, vigour and resources should be applied at tackling obesity. While a sugar tax has been introduced, there is a need for additional legislative changes that focus on societal factors and the food industry,” she adds.
Jennings continues: “Health policymakers need to take bolder and more definitive steps to curb obesity. Without decisive leadership, it won’t be reversed. Solely relying on public health messages about calorie intake, diet and exercise isn’t enough. A disconnect remains between policymakers and communities that struggle with obesity, especially among those living in low-socioeconomic areas, where unemployment and poverty levels are rife.”
She further notes that the obesity-associated costs for South Africa “already stack up to an estimated R53.9-bn per annum, which puts a tremendous strain on our already fragile healthcare system”.
While the vast majority (88 percent) are aware that obesity heightens a person’s risk for severe COVID-19 complications, 19 percent of those polled said they won’t be making any attempt to address their weight issues.
Jennings says it’s clear that the lockdown promoted dysfunctional eating and sedentary behaviours, which need to be overturned.
“Yes, it’s going to be tough to change habits after a year of comfort-eating, but unhealthy lifestyle habits threaten our health,” she explains. “With many still working from home, confined to small spaces, and the rapid increase in door-to-door delivery services, physical activity, such as going out for a walk during lunchtime or popping out to do some grocery shopping may be even more constrained.
“Similarly, consumers’ reliance on fast-food delivery services like Uber-Eats and Mr Delivery have increased substantially since the pandemic with many a diet solely consisting of junk food. Should the pandemic trend prevail, obesity may get much worse.”
The need for healthier lifestyles is about more than just keeping a healthy weight. It can significantly improve our immune system’s ability to fight back.
“When obese, your body is in a constant state of inflammation. Just a modest amount of weight gain in people who are hypertensive can increase their blood pressure to dangerous levels, which puts strain on their hearts and overall health,” Jennings says.
“As with most habits, it takes time to establish. Now that everyone is accustomed to the new normal, let’s be proactive about establishing new, healthier habits to see us through the pandemic,” she concludes.
The results from Pharma Dynamics’ poll were released in early May to coincide with “Measurement Month” – an initiative led by the International Society of Hypertension (ISH) to raise worldwide awareness around the dangers associated with high blood pressure.
The public is being encouraged to measure their blood pressure regularly as hypertension typically has no symptoms and often goes undetected. The public can visit either their GP or a pharmacy to have their blood pressure, cholesterol and glucose levels taken and is advised to do so at least annually.