Obesity has become a global health problem, affecting more than 1,3 billion adults in both developed and developing countries. Children are also not being spared in what is fast becoming a global pandemic.
A study funded by Discovery Vitality and conducted by the Medical Research Unit for Exercise Science and Sports Medicine at the University of Cape Town indicates that South African children show relatively high levels of being overweight and obese.
Cultural differences play a role
Another one of the study’s findings was that obesity in black girls increased from 11,9% at six years to 21,8% at 13 years. White girls, in contrast, were at 25,4% at six years and 14,5% at 13 years.
It has been postulated that these patterns may in part result from cultural differences. According to the research findings, black girls indicate a desire to be overweight as this is seen as a sign of wealth and happiness in black cultures. White girls on the other hand are seen to be heavily influenced by the western beauty idea, which shuns obesity.
Details of the study
The study, known as the ‘Health of the Nation’ study, was conducted in 25 schools in Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Johannesburg, Durban and Bloemfontein. More than 10 000 school-going children between the ages of six and 13 were tested. The study carried the permission by the Research and Ethics Committee of the University of Cape Town and the various provincial education departments.
Professor Vicky Lambert from the Medical Research Unit for Exercise Science and Sport said the study was part of an ongoing effort to encourage schools, and the Department of Education in particular, to reintroduce physical education.
Dr Craig Nossel, head of Clinical Vitality at Discovery said the study and what it sought to achieve were aligned to Discovery’s wellness philosophy. “The study matched Discovery’s actuarial and clinical expertise with the scientific know-how from the medical research unit, which I believe can only benefit the wellbeing of our children,” he said.
More sedentary lifestyles and increased urbanisation may be further causes
In South Africa and worldwide, studies have linked a sedentary lifestyle, which includes hours spent watching TV or playing computer games, with the increase in obesity.
However, this trend is not only about the so-called “haves and have-nots”. Television may also provide a ‘safe’ childminding alternative in poorer communities where an urban environment and crime may prevent children from participating in much needed after-school physical activity.
Increased urbanisation and the attendant modernisation of society were also cited as causes.
The future health of our nation
The study concluded that the levels of overweight and obesity among South African children are of concern for the present and future of South Africa, particularly in relation to consequences for the country’s health care system and the cost of health care.
"Clearly, the results of the study is proof that urgent interventions are needed to remedy the situation," said Prof Lambert.
Dr Nossel concurs: "South Africa can ill afford to let its children become progressively obese, which is a recipe for an unhealthy nation with dire consequences. Our already limited medical and health resources will be further stretched," he said.
Parents and schools have a role to play in addressing the problem
Dr Nossel said he hoped that the study’s findings would help schools, parents and tuck shop owners to focus on meal options that are healthy and affordable.
He added that the Vitality Wellness programme is proof that a healthy lifestyle, coupled with a reasonable amount of exercise and healthy nutritional choices go a long way in addressing the problem.
Vitality members were shown to claim on average 40% less than their non-Vitality members, according to a study conducted by US firm Milliman.
Parents, guardians should become involved
Professor Lambert highlighted the need for parents and guardians to become involved in promoting physical activity in their children. “Children model their physical activity behaviour, in part on that of their parents,” she said.
Lambert added that despite these numbers and trends, South Africa boasts many examples of non-government and private-public sector initiatives, promoting health through physical activity, specifically targeting children and youth.
“In fact, our Ministry was recently invited to speak at the World Health Assembly of the World Health Organisation on the South African response to the WHO global strategy on diet, physical activity and health.
Perhaps one of the best examples of effective advocacy is the Youth Fitness and Wellness Charter, a stakeholder-initiated document, which focuses on promoting physical activity, sport and play for children as a right, not a privilege.
It took eight drafts, with input from over 200 individuals and stakeholder organisations to agree to the document, but we feel it shows that South Africans are looking for their own solutions to preventing childhood obesity from becoming an adult health crisis," concluded Prof Lambert. - (Discovery Vitality, November 2006)
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