We are bringing up our children to become young sufferers of high blood pressure! At least one in ten children in South Africa is already diagnosed with high blood pressure. We are seeing this shocking trend in South Africa largely as a result of the unhealthy foods we give our children.
An unhealthy lifestyle, which includes a diet high in salt, is the main cause of high blood pressure. While we expect to see high blood pressure in older adults, the phenomenon in children is now much more common and very worrying, especially as these young children will have a much greater risk of developing severe health problems like heart disease, stroke and kidney failure as young adults.
It is estimated that high blood pressure is one of the leading causes of death worldwide. In South Africa one out of three individuals over the age of 15 suffers from high blood pressure, with the number of people affected steadily increasing year on year.
Read: Sensitivity to salt puts black South Africans at risk
Although the estimates for salt intake of South African children are unknown, salt intake amongst adults is high, leading many experts to believe that the same is true for children, since children follow the habits of their parents and carers. Foods high in salt such as crisps, fried chips and kotas or pies are often bought at school tuck shops and vendors.
Recent research has shown that one in 3 adolescents eats fast foods two to three times a week. Fast foods of course typically contain high levels of salt. A favourite daytime meal amongst Sowetan teenagers is the Kota ("quarter"), typically comprising of a quarter loaf of white bread, chips, fried eggs, cheese and polony or sausage. One kota alone provides a child with more salt than their entire daily recommended daily allowance.
“Children are increasingly affected by lifestyle diseases, brought on by unhealthy diets and lack of physical activity,” says Dr Vash Mungal-Singh, CEO of the Heart and Stroke Foundation (HSF) SA. “They are particularly vulnerable to our unhealthy environment, as they often have very little influence on or involvement in food purchases and what gets prepared at home.” Dr Mungal-Singh continues: “Children are often targets for the advertising of unhealthy snacks, high in added sugar, salt and unhealthy fats. We all know that children are extremely impressionable and the world over they are being marketed at extensively, using a wide range of clever techniques.”
Dietary habits in childhood and adolescence also influence eating patterns in later life. Liking salt and salty foods is a learned taste preference and so it is vital that children do not develop a taste for salt in the first place. Further to this, a high salt intake in children can influence blood pressure and may predispose a child to the development of a number of diseases including: high blood pressure, osteoporosis, respiratory illnesses such as asthma, stomach cancer and obesity.
According to Dr Victor Ramathesele, television health talk-show host, "Parents and caregivers have a vital role to play in not only what children eat now, but also the habits they form that will stay with them for the rest of their lives. I encourage all care givers of children at schools, pre-schools, crèches, churches, homes, hospitals and all other places of care, to lead by example and to use less salt and salty spices when cooking and supplying food for the family."
Read: Salt is killing South Africans
This year for World Salt Awareness Week, the HSF wants to ensure everyone understands the importance of a healthy start for children. As part of the week we want to encourage the food industry to act more responsibly by reducing the amount of salt they add to children's food and to stop advertising high salt food to children. We would like to call on all tuck shops, food vendors, restaurants, take aways and food companies to help us save our children’s hearts.
We are very fortunate that in a ground-breaking move in March 2013, our Minister of Health, Dr Aaron Motsoaledi, signed legislation to reduce salt levels in certain foods. These foods were chosen based on high consumption among South Africans. We are reminded that the first reductions need to come into effect by June 2016, only a little more than a year away – the countdown has indeed begun.
Many food producers in South Africa have made positive leaps toward salt reduction, and the HSF wants to commend them, and encourage all others to follow suit. According to Mr Geoff Penny, Executive Director of the South African Chamber of Baking, “Members have reported good progress in addressing the challenges posed by the new legislation, and the Chamber is confident that the new targets will be met by its members. The Chamber further calls on all bakers in South Africa to ensure they meet the targets come June 2016 in the interest of a healthier South Africa.” Mr Penny further cautions, “Of course, the good work done by the industry in reducing the salt content in bread can all be undone by putting the wrong fillings and spreads on sandwiches and snacks.”
Public education is another key element in salt reduction efforts among children and parents. In 2014 the Salt Watch campaign was launched to create public awareness regarding the health effects of excess salt intake, and to encourage South Africans to reduce their salt intake. As part of the campaign, Salt Watch aims to educate people to choose foods lower in salt and use less salt and salty spices at home.
Salt intake linked to obesity
Salt: the slow, silent killer
How potassium fights high blood pressure
Image: Sitting on the steps waiting to go to school from Shutterstock