I was shocked to read the latest statistics on overweight and obesity in children. According to the South African Demographic and Health Survey (SADHS), up to 10% of South African teenagers and young women between the ages of 15 and 24 that were surveyed, are obese. No wonder 56% of adult South African women are either overweight (with a BMI exceeding 25) or obese (with a BMI above 30) (Wordsmiths, 2010).
Tragically many children who are obese, are also stunted and suffer from nutritional deficiencies. This indicates that although their diets are excessively high in energy, refined carbohydrates and saturated fats, these diets are seriously lacking in high quality protein and protective nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids, phytonutrients and antioxidants.
What can be done?
Faced with this ever increasing deterioration of our children’s health, I was heartened to read a report in this week’s Sunday Times that a draft policy submitted by the Department of Basic Education together with the Department of Sport and Recreation, proposes to make our children more active.
According to Prega Govender, “the draft legislation stipulates that every school must offer at least two sporting codes per school term.” In addition, every school will be expected to make physical education available to learners (Govender, 2010).
This is one piece of legislation that I fully support, because there is a wealth of scientific evidence that indicates that physical activity plays a major role in preventing overweight and obesity. In fact, some experts believe that physical activity is the most important factor in helping young people lose weight, as too much emphasis on dieting can lead to eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia in this impressionable and vulnerable population.
Ironically eating disorders are also on the rise, particularly among black teenagers, with some youngsters practically starving themselves to death, while their peers are eating themselves into an early grave.
I sincerely hope that the draft legislation will be passed into law so that each and every school can ensure that their pupils participate in regular physical activity. Even in marginalised communities, children can run, jump, skip and play soccer or netball.
One does not require expensive equipment or Olympic swimming pools to get children to be active. Encouragement and some supervision from teachers for children to do 30 minutes of exercise every day would go a long way to get these young couch potatoes moving.
It would be a good idea if sports organisations sponsored prizes for the most innovative ideas put forward by schools to encourage activity at the lowest cost. A slogan like “More action, less cost” could be used as a starting point.
As regards the diet of learners, school tuckshops and those street vendors who sit outside schools selling fatty, sugar-laden snacks and drinks should be politely, but firmly asked by the school and the parent-teacher organisation to change their menus.
Selling wholewheat buns and sandwiches, or cooked maize meal with legumes, fruit and vegetables, milk and yoghurt or maas instead of "quarters" and carbonated cold drinks would be a step in the right direction.
Teachers are already overburdened with more work than they can cope with, so this is the time when parents need to start participating in getting their children active and making sure that any food or beverage sold in or around the school is nutritious and not overloaded with unhealthy fats or sugar.
Come up with suggestions for making the children at your local school more active. Volunteer for sports sessions, even if you don’t know anything about sport, you’ll soon learn, and when possible, lead by example. You too will benefit from jogging or skipping out in the fresh air instead of sitting in front of the TV munching chips and drinking coke or beer.
Offer to help at the tuckshop to plan inexpensive nutritious options to replace the unhealthy food that is on offer at most schools. Give some of your time and enthusiasm to ensure that your children get the best possible nutritional value for their money.
For tips on healthy lunch box options click here.
Setting a good example
And set a good example at home. Plan a family activity every week, and pack healthy foods into your children’s lunch boxes. Talk to your children and get them involved so that they can learn to take responsibility for their future physical activity, diet and health.
As parents we also need to be realistic when we look at our children. Be aware of the fact that your son or daughter is piling on the kgs and that he or she sits in front of the TV or the computer all day. Don’t take the path of least resistance when the kids badger you for sweets, cold drinks and fast food.
By "saving" time or being lazy you could doom your child to a lifetime of obesity and ill health. Govender (2010) mentions cases of children as young as 5 who struggle with obesity, so it is never too early to become proactive parents.
None of us want our children to become diabetic or suffer from heart disease, but if we don’t support this proposed bill on physical education and get sport or activities going at all our schools, then the generations to come will be doomed. Let’s save our kids before it is too late!
- (Dr IV van Heerden, DietDoc, May 2010)
(Govender, P (2010). Plan to fight obesity among children. Draft policy seeks to make sports and physical education compulsory. Sunday Times, May 16, 2010, p.12; Wordsmiths (2010). The grave truth about obesity. Media Release issued on behalf of DNAlysis, 26 April 2010, By e-mail).
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