epidemic of childhood obesity is fast creating a national health crisis. 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.
predicaments mainly of the affluent, overweight and obesity are now markedly on
the increase in low-income and middle-income populations, particularly in urban
areas. In 2010, it was estimated that, globally, about 43 million children
under the age of 5 years were overweight, and 35 million of these were living
in developing countries. The fastest overweight and obesity growth rates
are found in Africa – the number of overweight or obese children in 2010 was
more than double that in 1990. Whereas undernutrition and communicable
diseases were once the overriding health threat in developing countries, it is
now estimated that non-communicable diseases, such as obesity-associated
disorders, could be the cause of 7 out of every 10 deaths by 2020. South Africa
however faces a double burden of disease where under nutrition and overweight
or obesity are found in the same populations, in the same households and even
in the same children.
To say nothing of the
mental torment it inflicts on kids, being overweight can lead to a host of
serious health problems from diabetes and sleep apnea to joint problems and
gallbladder disease. Here’s something even more chilling: some experts suggest
that this might be the first generation of kids to have a shorter life
expectancy than their parents.
We hear statistics
like this on such a regular basis that we run the risk of being desensitized to
them. It’s time to step back and look at this issue with fresh eyes. After all,
these are our children we’re talking about.
First, it may be
helpful to understand the mechanisms behind the rising rates of childhood
obesity so that we can make more informed choices in helping our own kids.
A study in the South
African Journal of Science found that the increase in overweight children is
linked to urbanisation, a decline in physical activity and diets rich in
refined fats, oils and carbohydrates. Kids are contained indoors and
immersed in playing increasingly compelling video games on increasingly
wider-screen TV’s — while munching on increasingly fatter foods.
It’s easier than you
may think to help your kids live healthier lives. Here are five strategies to
do just that:
Set a Better Example
While 5% of boys and
25% of girls are overweight, that number pales in comparison to adults: a
whopping 29% of men and 56% of women are classiﬁed as overweight or obese in
South Africa. A recent survey by the American Dietetic Association Foundation
found that, more than anyone else, parents have the most potential to
influence their children’s behaviour, including their eating habits. Parents
were chosen by kids as their most important role model, outshining “rock stars”
This survey confirms
what we’ve long known: kids watch what their parents do and they follow much of
that behaviour. That certainly includes eating and exercise. Research has found
strong links between the food mothers eat and the choices made by their
We cannot slump onto
the couch and command our kids to “go get some exercise.” Part of helping your
child commit to better fitness is becoming a positive role model by making your
own exercise a priority and by playing with your child more often.
Exercising with your
children is a great way to spend quality time with them, improve their health and
make your own exercise more rewarding. Staying fit can improve your child’s
self-esteem and decrease their risk of developing serious illnesses, such as
heart disease or Type II diabetes.
You can also set a
good example by eating better. Improving your diet needn’t be unpleasant or
unpalatable either. Healthy food isn’t what it used to be. There are more
sumptuous options out there than ever before; it’s just a matter of taking the
time to find them.
2. Limit TV Time
The average child gets
less than one hour of exercise per week, but watches more than 30 hours of
television. Thirty hours. That’s mind bogging! A study found
that a child’s risk of obesity doubles for every hour of TV he or she
watches each week; for many kids, that’s a whole lot of doubling going on. You
may consider striking a deal with your children: for every one hour of TV
viewing, they must engage in half an hour of fun physical activity. The
operative word there is “fun.”
3. Make it Fun (Really Fun)
Parents, coaches and
teachers need to band together and commit to keeping sports fun and challenging
for kids. If kids who are overweight are having fun, weight loss comes as a
natural consequence of the activity, rather than the focus. Make having fun the
singular focus of your child’s relationship with physical activity.
Kids who enjoy sports
and exercise tend to stay active throughout their lives. Expose kids to new
activities that they truly enjoy — and that they excel in.
Never before have
there been more sports available to kids: ballet, water polo, soccer, golf,
tennis. Keep trying new activities until you find the one that clicks with your
4. Strike a Junk Food Deal
South Africans are
increasing their consumption of junk foods. Compared with a worldwide average
of 89 Coca-Cola products per person per year, in 2010 South Africans consumed
254 Coca-Cola products per person per year, an increase from around 130 in 1992
and 175 in 1997. In 2010, up to half of young people were reported to consume
fast foods, cakes and biscuits, cold drinks, and sweets at least four days a
week. Carbonated drinks are now the third most commonly consumed food/drink
item among very young urban South African children (aged 12–24 months)—less
than maize meal and brewed tea, but more than milk.
You may want to
consider this approach: no junk food during the week, but on weekends, allow
your kids to slack off and have the bad stuff. That way, they’re consuming less
overall junk food, and you haven’t made it as taboo, which only increases their
desire to have it. Another related strategy to help kids eat better is not to
deny the “bad foods,” but merely to insist that they have the “good stuff”
first. The idea is that after eating the good, they will have less room for the
bad. That’s not a bad suggestion for parents, either!
5. Spend More Time Eating Together
In our culture, we
tend to view food as a tool rather than as nourishment. We often eat on the run
and give little or no thought to what we’re putting into our bodies, or how
we’re doing that. We need to give more reverence to food — and to mealtimes.
Establish daily meal and snack times, and eat together as frequently as
possible. Some research has shown that kids who sit down to eat with their
families develop healthier dietary habits. This is a tip that can benefit
parents as well.
Exercising with your
children is a great way to spend quality time with them, improve their health
and make your own exercise more rewarding. Staying fit can improve your child’s
self-esteem and decrease their risk of developing serious illnesses.
We cannot blame this
problem on video games, TV commercials — or the “resistance” put up by our
children. That merely disempowers us. The solution to the problem of
childhood obesity in this country — resulting from too little exercise and poor
nutrition — rests squarely on the shoulders of parents.
Let’s all take the
concerted and consistent action necessary today to improve the health and
fitness of our children. Their lives depend on it!