Author(s): Mokhtar N
The etiology of obesity in North Africa is not well understood and few studies shed any light on its development among women. This study compiles what is known about the prevalence of obesity and its determinants in Morocco and Tunisia. Results from the authors' two surveys on nutrition-related disease among reproductive-age women (sample size: 2800) and their children (1200 children under 5 y and 500 adolescents) were combined with data from four national income and expenditure surveys (dating from 1980) to assess obesity trends and development in Morocco and Tunisia. Overall levels of obesity, identified by body mass index (BMI) > or = 30 kg/m(2), were 12.2% in Morocco and 14.4% in Tunisia. Obesity is significantly higher among women than among men in both countries (22.7% vs. 6.7% in Tunisia and 18% vs. 5.7% in Morocco) and prevalence among women has tripled over the past 20 y. Half of all women are overweight or obese (BMI > 25) with 50.9% in Tunisia and 51.3% in Morocco. Overweight increases with age and seems to take hold in adolescence, particularly among girls. In Tunisia, 9.1% of adolescent girls are at risk for being overweight (BMI/age > or = 85th percentile). Prevalence of overweight and obesity are greater for women in urban areas and with lower education levels. Obese women in both countries take in significantly more calories and macronutrients than normal-weight women. The percentage contribution to calories from fat, protein and carbohydrates seems to be within normal limits, whereas fat intake is high (31%) in Tunisia and carbohydrate intake (65-67%) is high in Morocco. These are alarming trends for public health professionals and policy makers in countries still grappling with the public health effects of malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies. Health institutions in these countries have an enormous challenge to change cultural norms that do not recognize obesity, to prevent significant damage to the public's health from obesity.