16 July 2007

Are we getting shorter and fatter?

Worldwide, obesity has become a major force to be reckoned with. Now, the people of the world's fattest nation are also getting shorter. Here's why we should be concerned.

As a nutritionist, I am fully aware of the fact that people living a western lifestyle are getting fatter all the time.

The statistics are mind-boggling, with up to 50% of Americans now classified as obese or overweight. What’s more, South Africans are catching up rapidly.

What many people don’t know, however, is that western populations are also getting shorter.

Shrinking Americans
An article by Paul Krugman, published in the New York Times and entitled "Long and short of it is that diet counts for a lot", points out that a recent statistical survey found that Americans are shrinking in height as they grow ever broader.

Researchers John Komlos and Benjamin Lauderdale published a paper in the Social Sciences Quarterly which reports that Americans who once were "tallest in the world between colonial times and the middle of the 20th century" have now "become shorter (and fatter) than western and northern Europeans."

This is a startling finding, as it was a well-known fact in nutrition circles that Americans were taller and stronger than the immigrants who flooded into their country from Europe and countries such as Japan and Hawaii.

I have a textbook that attributes the pronounced increase in height of second-generation American immigrants from Japan, Europe and Hawaii, to the improved diets that these children followed, compared to that of their parents.

The American diet of half a century ago was rich in milk and dairy products, meat and other protein foods, whole grains, and fresh fruit and vegetables. These nutrient-rich foods encouraged people to grow strong bones and teeth and tower above their parents.

Contributing factors
So, what happened to the American diet? What caused the Americans to shrink so drastically, falling from first place to 20th place on the world height list to below countries such as Poland, Portugal and Hungary?

The answer is simple: the above-mentioned healthy foods that were rich in calcium, protein, protective nutrients and dietary fibre, have been replaced by empty calories. The basic American diet is nutrient-poor and contains far too much highly processed starch and fat.

Instead of drinking milk, American children now drink litres of cold drinks, which make no contribution to the diet – except for empty kilojoules. In fact, cold drinks are being held partly responsible for the US obesity epidemic.

According to researchers Komlos and Lauderdale, "US children consume more meals prepared outside the home, more fast foods rich in fat, high in energy density and low in essential micronutrients, than do European children."

The second factor that impacts on healthy bone growth is lack of exercise. In a population of couch potatoes, who are inseparable from their TVs, PCs and play stations, children no longer engage in hours of physical activity which would strengthen their bones and encourage vertical growth.

What about SA?
Will South Africans follow in the steps of the Americans? Will we also start to shrink as a nation?

Possibly. There’s a good chance that South Africans, who follow a western diet and slothful lifestyle, who buy more and more meals at take-outs and fast-food outlets, who follow the bad example of their American counterparts, will also get shorter and broader every year.

In my opinion, this is a tragedy. I am all for rapid, international communication, but if belonging to the global village means that our nation is going to follow every bad American habit, then we need to take a rain check.

Let's do something about this dilemma instead of following a bad example.

What can we do?
If we, as South Africans, do not want to fall into the same trap as the Americans, we need to become highly proactive with regards to the diets we and our children eat, and the amount of physical exercise we do.

Tips to prevent childhood obesity
Poor eating habits, obesity and shrinking stature all have their origins in childhood. The following tips may help you to prevent your children from sliding down the slippery slope of overindulgence and sloth:

  • Make sure that your child is not overweight – be realistic and don't make excuses like "Oh, it's just puppy fat!" or "Mary was a big baby!" or "John has big bones!" You should be able to judge if your child is getting fat, or at least take the child to a clinic, dietician or medical doctor to have his/her weight and height assessed.
  • If your child is overweight, then do something about it. Take her/him to a dietician, who will work out a weight-reduction diet for the child that still permits healthy growth. Don't try fad diets or slimming pills on children and teenagers – they can be counterproductive and downright dangerous.
  • Make sure your child gets plenty of exercise – at least an hour a day of participating in sport, playing active games or even attending a gym. The habit of doing physical exercise learned at a young age is vital in ensuring good health for the rest of your child's life.
  • Don't buy fast food and take-aways all the time. A fast-food lunch or supper once a month, when you don't have time to cook, is ok, but 3-4 a week is a recipe for disaster. Not only will it pile on the kilos, but it will create the idea in your children's heads that fast food is a normal and acceptable way of eating.
  • Limit how many sweets, chocolates, cakes and cold drinks your children consume. Liquid sweetened drinks are more inclined to cause weight gain than eating small quantities of solid sugar on foods like cereals or jam on whole-wheat bread. And above all, don't create the idea that sweets and cold drinks are 'treats' or 'rewards' for good behaviour. This is a most destructive mental link that hampers many adults when they try to lose weight later in life. Thanks to childhood conditioning, they regard such foods and drinks as 'comfort food', and can't live without them.
  • Finally, apply these guidelines to yourself and other adults in your family to prevent adult obesity.

Let's be vigilant and do something about the health, weight and height of future South Africans and our own right now before we go the way of the shrinking Americans. As Paul Krugman says, "Diet counts for a lot!"

Text copyright: Dr I.V. van Heerden, DietDoc
9 July 2007

(Krugman P (2007). Long and Short of it is that Diet Counts for a Lot, New York Times.)

Read more:
The other side of the obesity story


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