The truth about obesity: things you need to know

Dear Ugandans at heart,

For most of us, our Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) is between 1300-1500Calories per day (Say 1400) – this is what your body burns without doing anything. Most working class Ugandans only spend an additional 500 Calories moving here-and-there to gossip at the office and some mild chores at home – hence 1900Cal.

The average working class Ugandan guzzles about 2400 Calories of food and that is conservative – many middle class Ugandans can easily wallop 3000Cal. Going with the conservative wallop, it means therefore that about 500 Calories is unburnt and we therefore have a daily saving – this is converted to fat (the body’s natural fuel storage form) and stored on top of the butt (relatively harmless), the upper arms (relatively harmless), on top of the face (harmless), and on top of the abdomen (d.e.a.d.l.y). This reserve is conserved slowly by slowly over several years, so that you keep piling the weight invisibly without knowing.

The d.e.a.d.l.y fat leaves a good circulating balance in your blood stream (Called ‘Bad Cholesterol’ or ‘Low-Density Lipids’) that deposits in the vessels slowly narrowing, hardening and roughening them and creating a good surface for more deposits – by around age 45, some critical vessels start complaining – especially the key vessels that feed the heart, the kidneys, the brain – the blood pressure also goes up because of the constrained fluidics of narrow rough vessels (remember Bernoulli Principle in O’Level physics).

It is increasingly common now for cardiac attacks among middle class Ugandans to occur from 45 years and above. (2 Ugandans, both below 55 died on aeroplanes within 2 years; famous Ghanaian BBC Journalist had a heart attack at 40,and many that we know). The problem is not so much the butt fat, the arm fat and the cheek fat – it is the abdominal fat – so even seemingly lean people but with a ka-small pot belly are getting cardiovascular problems. Our body evolved this way because in the past, our grand parents were hunters and gatherers and used to eat once in a while – so the body was tuned to ‘c.o.n.s.e.r.v.a.t.i.o.n’. The Muslims are fasting and this is actually good for the health but i doubt they know it.

To burn the excess, we need to burn about 500 Calories per day. This is equivalent to 1 Hour of moderate physical activity (moderate exertion like running or fast paced domestic chores, or climbing) or 1.5 Hrs of mild activity (like brisk walking). When you do that, you burn off the extra 500 calories.

The other alternative is to reduce your food serving by a third (800 calories) – problem is that if you are hungry, then when you eat again, you hog more – and it is difficult to know the calories in what you are eating – you might cut your food but eat calorie dense foods – because they are the tastiest (the combination of refined carbohydrates and saturated fats is more addictive than cocaine).

So somehow somewhere, we have to increase physical activity. Plus, if you cut food too radically, the body is smart – it lowers the BMR – say from 1400Cal to 1300Cal (the body goes in a slumber of sorts) – so the best is to combine the two – cut calorie dense food slightly and do 1 hour of moderate or 1.5 Hr of mild PER DAY.

The way our office time is structured does not allow us to move. Many working class Ugandans leave home at 5.45am, hurriedly, sit at a workstation staring at the computer for 1 day till 7.00pm, return home and switch on the TV, while simultaneously fondling the phone to see the latest Whattup gossip – we are too terribly sedentary that even the 500 Cal of background activity are often not realized. Plus, we love s.i.t.t.i.n.g!

One of my colleagues would sit down at every little stage in the airport check-in process – complaining always at spaces where there were no chairs – you sit for the entire journey in a 15 Hour flight, then when u jump out of the aircraft, you run to book a sitting place on the airport bus so you are one of the ‘privileged ones’ to sit for a 1 minute drive.

In a recent study conducted, Ugandans love obesity. In many languages, the vernacular word for ‘obese’ is the same as that for ‘VIP’ – albeit in slang. To lose weight is stigmatized. Like any capitalist – eating and relaxing is the epitome of life’s enjoyment – at least in Africa. ‘Chi-laxing’ as it is called and ‘over-nutrition’ are viewed as the maximum that life can give to a well-fulfilled middle aged, middle class Ugandan who earns 60Million a year. When you see people who were as thin as the ‘the sticks used to beat drums’ at Campus 10 years later, they appear like little Hippopotamuses in their own right. Weight its-self is not bad if your body is programmed to store the fats in the safer parts and forms – but for those programmed to storing on the abdomen (which is genetic anyway and u can’t change that), exercise and diet are a key tool you need.

Note: Even if you regularly do moderate or mild physical activity, you occasionally need some strenuous physical activities for short periods (so-called anaerobic activity) – 5-10 minutes every other day or more if u can. It achieves 2 things: First it builds your muscle mass – muscles are the powerhouse for burning calories – so the more you have the more your BMR – they burn for you even on days you don’t exercise. Remember that a human being stops building new muscle fibres at the age of 40 years – so you need to keep those that you have active so that they do not die off. Secondly, these exercises build your cardio-tolerance – i.e. they make your heart muscle stronger and resilient so that as you age, moderate cardio-vascular shocks are easily warded off.

So my prescription: 1 Hour of moderate activity (in divided doses – 20 minutes morning, 10 minutes mid morning and 30 minutes evening) for most days of the week – or if you choose mild – 1.5 hours of walking, divided too. Plus a 1/4 reduction in walloping rates – especially the fatty-fatties. Occasional short bouts of strenuous activity if you can. No gyms please.

Many of the gyms in Uganda simply pass for ‘dancing areas’! Physical fitness isn’t just body movement sessions (jumping to music). It is scientifically determined not only to burn calories (shed off weight) but also a combination of movements to exercise the brain as well for body coordination. Finding competent trained instructors to offer this is a tall order. So, why not exercise naturally in one’s compound at no cost than paying exorbitantly for same results?


Rahimu Jabendo.



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