Government’s much-vaunted “sugar tax” may not be working to quell South Africa’s obesity epidemic, as experts say they have seen little change in the quantity of sweetened foods people consume. A study earlier this year revealed that South African children were fast becoming world leaders in obesity.
The study, published in the International Journal of Epidemology, found the obesity rate among children in the country was growing faster than in the US, which has long been considered to be the leader in this arena.
It found that obesity rates among South African children doubled in about six years, while this took 13 years in the US.
This alarming revelation comes amid severe belt-tightening due to the effects of a weakened economy and food price hikes – although that’s where the belt tightening appears to stop.
Experts said they have not seen an obvious reduction in sugar intake after the recent implementation of the sugar tax.
According to the vice-chairperson of the South African Medical Association (Sama), Mark Sonderup, obesity is a common phenomenon on the continent. The reasons for it are multifaceted, but the main contributing factors are bad dietary habits and unhealthy behavioural patterns.
He said the unfortunate part was that a lot of people turned to a high carbohydrate diet because these foods were cheaper and more accessible than healthy food. These poor eating habits were then eventually followed by children.
Sonderup said he felt the “sugar tax” was just another form of income for the government, as it had not been rigorously interrogated before it was implemented.
He added he had not seen evidence that it was reducing sugar intake.
Sonderup also noted that physical activity was seemingly no longer mandatory in schools and while this had not stopped children from becoming overweight in the past, it was very beneficial as it encouraged children to be more active. This contributed towards children’s wellbeing in the long run.
He said the most effective way of preventing a child from becoming obese was for parents to change their eating habits if they did not follow a healthy diet and a physically active lifestyle.
Dietician Lila Bruk agreed that the increases in food prices played a role in obesity, but that education about how to lead a healthy lifestyle played an even bigger role.
She said people needed to be more aware of what constituted a healthy and balanced diet. This would enable them to make better decisions when shopping for food items.
She was not sure whether the “sugar tax” had succeeded in reducing South Africans’ high sugar intake, given that people had not stopped consuming processed and sugary foods after it was implemented.