Up to 5% of boys and a staggering 25% of girls in South Africa are obese or overweight. Only the UK, Canada, the USA and Mexico exceed our poor statistics.
The increasing problem of overweight and obesity in children and teenagers was recently addressed at the “Sugar & Health Symposium” in East London. Lucia Meko, a lecturer at University of the Free State, highlighted various aspects of this diet-related problem.
We all need to be aware of the threat it poses to our children’s health. Not a week goes by without a forum user asking me for advice on what to do for her child who is grossly overweight or obese.
Ironically, many South African children and teenagers are underweight or stunted, due to a lack of nutritious foods. And yet, SA kids clock up the fifth-highest obesity rates in the world.
Causes of childhood obesity
Meko pointed out that childhood and adolescent overweight and obesity have a variety of causes, but that the following factors play an important role:
1) Periods of rapid growth
- Children who were heavy babies at birth are at increased risk of becoming obese later on. According to research, babies with high birth weights suffer from permanent changes in their fat and lean muscle tissue composition.
- Adolescence is another growth period when obesity can develop as a result of psychological, social and behavioural changes.
2) Hormone imbalances
- Disturbed leptin levels in children may also lead to overweight. Leptin is a hormone that sends a signal to the brain to stop eating when we have ingested sufficient kilojoules. If leptin metabolism is disrupted, the brain will not receive the correct signal and the child will go on eating.
- Insulin resistance, which was once regarded as an adult problem, is increasingly found in children and teenagers. Insulin resistance can lead to increased fat storage and an inability to lose weight.
- Genetic factors also play a role. In general, obese parents tend to have obese children. Studies with twins, who were adopted after birth, revealed that these children tend to have similar body weights and BMIs to their biological parents, not to their adoptive parents.
- In other words, a child from an obese family who has been adopted and who grew up with thin parents will still tend to develop overweight despite positive environmental factors such as a balanced diet and exercise, because the child takes after its biological parents.
4) Ethnic factors
- Ethnicity may also predispose a child to obesity. In Africa, where large body size is regarded as beautiful and a sign of good health and prosperity, black children, especially girls, may be at risk of obesity for cultural reasons.
5) The teenage years
- Adolescent eating habits also contribute to overweight. Teenagers who skip breakfast, live on fatty fast foods and snacks, drink litres of sweetened cold drinks, and even start to experiment with alcohol, will easily exceed their energy requirement with resultant weight gain.
6) Peer pressure and the media
- Peer pressure and the media have much to answer for. Many advertisements target children and teenagers and encourage youngsters to demand high-fat foods and drinks. Young children can't discriminate between the lure of a glossy food ad and the potential negative effect such foods can have on health and weight.
7) Lack of physical activity
- Lack of physical activity in children and teenagers is one of the features of the modern world. In the past, children spent most of their free time playing boisterous games and sport was part of the school curriculum.
- Nowadays, children and teenagers devote an average of 3-5 hours a day watching TV or playing computer games which use up practically no energy. No wonder our children are expanding at an alarming rate!
What can parents do?
In view of the staggering statistics and the multiple factors that seem to be dooming our children to obesity, Meko made the following suggestions:
a) Encourage physical activity
Physical activity is one of the most important factors in combating and reducing overweight and obesity in children and teenagers. Encourage your children to participate in sport and arrange that children spend at least two hours a day doing some exercise.
Start a ‘Concerned Parents Group’ at your child’s school to lobby for physical activity after school if there is no provision for sport activities, or take turns to look after children while they're playing.
If you want your child to be active, you may have to get out there and set an example. Go for walks, cycle, skip, swim or play ball with your children.
b) Monitor what your children are eating
It's easy to go the path of least resistance and let children eat what they want, when they want. But, you as a parent is responsible for checking that they don't spend their pocket money on crisps, sweets, chocolates, cold drinks and pies.
Find out what the tuckshop at the school is selling or if there are vendors sitting outside the school gates to tempt children to buy junk food. If this is the case, activate your ‘Concerned Parents Group’ to make changes to the tuckshop menu and to even ask the vendors to only sell healthy options.
Most importantly, give your children healthy food at home. This doesn't mean that your family is never allowed to have a take-away meal, but such meals should be rare treats on special occasions, not an everyday habit.
Stock your kitchen with fresh fruit and vegetables and prepare balanced meals and lunch boxes for your family. This may take commitment and planning, but you and your children will reap the benefits of good health without overweight or obesity.
(Dr I.V. van Heerden, DietDoc, May 2009)
(Meko, L (2009). Overweight & obesity in children & adolescents. Sugar & Health Symposium, 12-23 May 2009,East London.)