Africa is long known for high rates of hunger, undernutrition and infectious diseases like HIV/AIDS but a disturbing new threat of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) associated with overweight, obesity and diet-related NCDs is emerging in many countries. The rapid unplanned urbanization of countries in the African Region has resulted in increasing consumption of free sugars, sugar-sweetened drinks and processed foodstuffs.
To help improve dietary choices and counter the rapid upsurge of NCDs, WHO released updated recommendations for adults and children to reduce the intake of free sugars throughout the life course. WHO further recommends that in both adults and children, the intake of free sugars be reduced to less than 10% of total energy intake and a further reduction to below 5% of total energy intake would provide additional health benefits.
“After years of research and over 9000 studies, the dangers of high levels of sugars consumption are finally starting to be known. Daily intake of free sugars should be no more than 10% of total energy intake in order to prevent NCDs, in particular tooth decay and health problems resulting for overweight and obesity, namely diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and cancer and it is suggested to further reduce the intake to less than 5% of total energy intake for added health benefits,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa.
Using a 2000-calorie diet as an example, less than 10% of total energy intake of free sugars or 200 calories equates to less than 50 grams of free sugars. Applying the suggested intake of less than 5% of total energy for the same example would reduce the free sugars intake to less than 25 grams. This is of utmost importance to children and adults as over-consumption of free sugars which is contributing greatly to excess energy intake coupled with low-energy expenditures from lack of physical activity is causing unhealthy weight gains.
Much of the sugars consumed today are “hidden” in processed foods that are not usually seen as sweets. For example, 1 tablespoon of tomato sauce contains around 4 grams (around 1 teaspoon) of sugar. A single can of sugar-sweetened soda contains up to 40 grams (around 10 teaspoons) of sugars.
In recent years, the rate of increase of childhood overweight and obesity in developing countries with emerging economies has been more than 30% higher than that in developed countries. In 2013, it was estimated that 42 million children under the age of 5 in the world were overweight or obese and about 35 million of them were living in the developing countries.
“The risk of type 2 diabetes in adults increases continuously with increasing obesity, and decreases with weight loss. The new WHO sugars recommendations contribute to halting the spread of overweight and obesity and helping individuals maintain a healthy weight throughout the life course,” said Dr Tigest Ketsela, Director of Health Promotion at the WHO Regional Office for Africa.
The upsurge of sugars consumption in the African Region is closely associated with many cross-cutting variables such as increased availability, cultural traditions, individual preferences and beliefs as well as geographical, environmental, economic and social factors.
“Rapid uptake of the new WHO sugars guidelines along with increased physical activity is needed to halt and reverse the obesity and NCD epidemics in Africa. New and bold intersectoral policies and actions are needed to improve overall health and quality of life of populations in the Region,” said Dr Chandralall Sookram, Medical Officer for the Primary Prevention of NCDs at the WHO Regional Office for Africa.