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Tackling the national diet

President Mokgweetsi Masisi recently set the ball rolling on a national debate the country urgently needs to have around lifestyle diseases and the evolving diet of modern day Botswana.

Having scraped through the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1990s and 2000s, Non-Communicable Diseases (NCD) have become the new major threat to public health, anchored in rising urbanisation, greater uptake of “modern” diets and an increase in sedentary lifestyles. NCDs such as cardiovascular diseases (like heart attacks and stroke), cancer, chronic respiratory diseases (such as chronic obstructed pulmonary disease and asthma) and diabetes have reached crisis levels in Botswana, riding on the back of escalating obesity, harmful habits such as excessive drinking and smoking, as well as the “modern” diet which often abuses sugar, salt oil to the detriment of a balanced diet. Like HIV/AIDS an era ago, NCDs are not only over-burdening the already poorly funded public health system, but injuring the economy through work place absences, hospitalisations and, unfortunately, rising deaths amongst people who would otherwise be contributing to the various economic sectors. As hinted by President Masisi, there is a need to especially introduce measures to arrest the situation beyond the current educational campaigns and efforts towards healthier lifestyle options by both public and private health care providers. The President anticipates a situation where the excessive consumption of sugar in particular is moderated and has said he plans to open “extensive consultation” on this in 2019.

Experts have already weighed in and the general expectation is that a sugar tax will or should be introduced to discourage the production and consumption of sweetened beverages in particular. Countries facing the NCD explosion, such as South Africa and

the United Kingdom have already introduced the same as both a demand and supply side disincentive. In a country where an ever-increasing number of sugary, fizzy and non-fizzy beverages are entering the market each month, many without the statutory nutritional labels, it is no surprise that most Batswana do not realise just how much sugar they are consuming on a daily basis. However, for Botswana, it would help for health sector policymakers, experts and consumers to have a dialogue around the excessive consumption of salt. Even more than sugar, salt is excessively consumed in Botswana, in fast food restaurants, street food vendors (popularly known as bommaseapei) and especially, in the in-house takeaways of major supermarkets. The latter are notorious for serving up very oily, salty fare, consumed by unsuspecting consumers often blinded by the apparent respectability of these supermarkets. The fast food outlets are no better, as dieticians have even warned that these restaurants often over-salt their dishes in order to “push” customers to buy their overpriced sugary beverages. After 10 years of the alcohol levy, President Masisi should expected that critics may read any imposition of a tax on sugar beverages as yet another turn towards a “nanny state” that wishes to dictate to its citizens what they should eat and drink.

However, like the bold decisions former president Festus Mogae took when HIV/AIDS threatened the country’s existence, bold decisions will have to be taken now.


Today’s thought

“Good food choices are good investments.”  

- Bethenny Frankel




Purging the DIS

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