Getting bigger, getting smaller …

2011-11-11 14:37

South Africa’s overburdened health and education systems will struggle to cope in future if the current obesity and stunting trends among young people continues, according to health experts.

Already, a staggering 35% of high school girls in South Africa are found to be overweight or obese, putting the country on par with the US, where obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years.

On the flip side, one in every five South African children under nine is stunted due to malnutrition.

According to Discovery Vitality’s 2010 report card on the physical activity, nutrition and tobacco use of the country’s children and youth, stunting is also prevalent in more than a quarter of rural school children.

Professor David Sanders of the University of the Western Cape’s School of Public Health said simultaneous stunting and obesity were often found in the same family.

He said stunted children often became obese as they developed and this could be ascribed to several biological factors. But the common factor in both is a vitamin and mineral deficiency in their diets.

Professor Salome Kruger of North West University said South African children developed well up to six months as most of them were breastfed, but it deteriorated after that.

“The problem starts as soon as our children start eating solid foods,” said Kruger of the Centre of Excellence for Nutrition at North West University.

She added that stunted children were not necessarily going hungry, but instead were receiving food that did not contain the nutrients essential for growth at this critical age. Sanders said stunting, which occurred in the first two years of life, had long-term developmental consequences in terms of the child’s mental development.

He added that once obesity was established there were later risks of non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and in some cases cancer.

Sanders pointed out that it was important to understand why people’s diets had changed.

“It is very clear that in the past 15 years food availability has changed dramatically in South Africa with processed and packaged food much more affordable and easily available,” he said, adding that these foods were often high in fat, salt and sugar.

“The market has grown massively,” he said, adding that the retail sector has almost doubled between 2005 and 2009.

Foreign direct investment has seen large food companies entering the South African market selling predominantly processed foods and snacks.

This, coupled with a much larger purchasing population, has seen the market expand.

A survey in Mt Frere in the Eastern Cape and in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, revealed that 80% of shelf space in supermarkets is taken up by processed foods, which are 60% cheaper than healthy food.

“It’s cheaper to buy a Coke than it is to buy milk,” said Sanders.

He said this phenomenon was global and that government policies that taxed unhealthy food, subsidised fresh food and offered incentives for retailers to stock healthy food was critical.

Professor Hans de Ridder, director at North West University’s School of Biokinetics, Recreation and Sport Science, concurred that childhood obesity was a threat to public health and a ticking time bomb.

De Ridder links the problem to lack of exercise.In South Africa, children spend on average over four hours a day watching television with many schools not prioritising physical education.

– Health-e News Service

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