Many SA kids obese

More than 17% of South African children between the ages of one and nine living in urban areas are overweight, according to a report by the Medical Research Council of South Africa.

This is of great concern, as American studies have found that overweight or obese children tend to remain overweight or obese to the age of twenty and are exposed to a 1.5 to 2 times higher risk of being obese adults. Obese adults in turn face the risk of increased heart disease, diabetes, joint and gall-bladder disease, and a lifetime of trying to shed those unwanted kilograms.

It is evident that something needs to be done about this situation as soon as possible. So let’s first consider the factors that may contribute to this epidemic and then try and formulate a plan of action to combat childhood obesity or better still, prevent it from every occurring in our children.

Contributing factors
In the USA a number of factors have been identified which contribute to this epidemic of childhood obesity, namely:

Genetic makeup
If one, or both parents of a child are overweight or obese, the child will be more susceptible to gaining weight. Research shows that a genetic component explains 50-60% of the variations in abdominal fat content in different individuals. It is therefore, true that obesity tends to run in families and that obese parents are likely to have obese children.

Genetic vs. environmental factors
Genetic factors are, however, only partially responsible for the development of obesity. Children with "lean" genes may also become obese if they are exposed to what is known as “an energy overload" or over-abundance of high-energy foods.

However, research indicates that the most susceptible individuals are those with a genetic tendency who are chronically exposed to excess food intake. In other words, children with obese parents and a “fat-prone” genetic makeup who are always overfed will be more likely to become obese than those who have no genetic tendency and are not overfed.

Certain population groups are more inclined to gain weight than others when they are exposed to a high-fat western diet. This phenomenon has been observed repeatedly when populations exchange their high-fibre, low-fat eating habits to high-fat, high-energy diets as part of urbanisation and westernisation.

In South Africa, we are experiencing this kind of transition on a daily basis as more and more rural people leave their villages to move to the cities. When rural children become city dwellers their diets undergo a radical change as they substitute high-energy snack foods and cold drinks for grains, fruits, vegetables, and sour milk. Ironically, malnutrition and obesity often occur in members of the same family living in disadvantaged communities.

Lack of physical activity
Modern children in contrast to their counterparts of 30 years ago, have become couch potatoes. They expend much less energy on physical activity than ever before. Endless hours of watching TV and playing computer games, are probably the major culprits.

On the other hand, many schools do not have the facilities to permit all their pupils to participate in sport, and other schools only concentrate on their best athletes, while the majority of less sporty children are made to sit on the sidelines. Whereas children in years gone by used to walk or cycle to school, buses and ‘Mom’s taxi’ have become the norm nowadays, thus preventing children from getting exercise on a daily basis.

Changing eating habits
The trend of eating more meals at restaurants, buying take-away-foods and high-energy snacks, the increase in the availability of kilojoule-laden foods at every turn, including tuck shops, large portion sizes and skipping meals due to lack of time, not only contribute to obesity in adults, but also in children.

Psychological factors
Many parents express their love for their children in terms of food. “Eat up, your Mom made this dinner specially for you.” “Don’t cry, have a sweety.” It you have a problem expressing your love for your children, don’t use this confusing type of coercion, as it may make them equate food and love in later life and cause them to gain weight every time they feel unloved or have to cope with a crisis.

Other parents try to exert control over their children by means of food. “Think of the starving children in the world and clean your plate!” Making your child feel guilty when eating is a destructive approach that may distort his or her concept of food for the rest of his/her life.

It is no wonder that our children are becoming more and more prone to overweight and obesity. If children are exposed to energy-rich foods at every turn and not encouraged to exercise, the inevitable result is an increase in body mass. The alarming statistics mentioned above need to be taken seriously and we should do everything in our power to prevent South African children from succumbing to the obesity epidemic.

- (Dr I.V. van Heerden, aka DietDoc, updated April 2011)

Any questions? Ask DietDoc

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