Childhood obesity in South Africa

It is estimated that more than 30 million overweight children live in developing countries, compared to 10 million in developed countries. For World Health Day, Anita Pienaar, author of a study published in BMC Obesity, explains how the developing world is not excluded from the rising epidemic of childhood obesity.

South Africa, defined as a developing country, is seeing a rising trend in childhood obesity. Africa has the fastest growth rates of obesity among pre-school children and South Africa in particular is among the countries with the highest child obesity rates.

Recent studies show a mean prevalence of just over 15% for overweight and obesity from birth to 19 year-olds. However, this prevalence does not give a true reflection of the problem as it is masked by differences between age groups, boys and girls, ethnic groups, and geographical areas.

Our study on pre-pubertal children shows a concerning overall increase in obesity over a three year period, from the age of six to nine years. The prevalence in obesity increased more in boys compared to girls, although obesity was generally more common in girls. Although most children showed a change towards an unhealthy body mass index (BMI), a few did change towards a healthier BMI.

It is estimated that more than 30 million overweight children live in developing countries, compared to 10 million in developed countries.

There are many possible causes for the increase in obesity. One’s financial background seems to play a significant role, as we found children from wealthier families had the highest rate of both increase and prevalence of obesity.

Families climbing up the economic ladder had a negative impact on their child’s body composition, as children living and going to school in poorer areas were healthier than those living and studying in wealthier areas.

Globalization, improving economic conditions and changing dietary habits in developing countries could all contribute to the rapid increases that are seen worldwide in obesity.

In South Africa, westernization and urbanization may be the main causes of obesity in wealthy black families, while the high prevalence among Caucasian children might still be a result of the post-apartheid regime exposing them to circumstances equal to those in developed countries, such as sedentary lifestyles.

Although many interrelated behavior patterns can be contributing factors. Decreased physical activity levels, particularly among black girls, and higher food security which can contribute to higher availability and intake of processed foods, can also be possible reasons for the major differences that are seen between black children in both poor and rich schools.

Cultural beliefs regarding ideal body mass might be another possible contributing factor to black and Caucasian differences in obesity prevalence’s that were found.

Children spending money at school tuck shops on unhealthy foods might also play a role in the increased prevalence found in children attending schools associated with higher living conditions.

Children living in South Africa are very much part of the rising epidemic of childhood obesity

Widespread trends of increasing child obesity are reported in developing countriesOverweight and obesity were once considered problems afflicting only the wealthy. However, we’re now aware that the public health problem is growing in low and middle income countries too, especially in urban areas.

The current status of obesity among South African children is comparable to that found in developed countries more than a decade ago. Therefore, children living in South Africa are very much part of the rising epidemic of childhood obesity.

Obese children are especially vulnerable to the side-effects associated with obesity, such as adverse health risks, and developmental shortcomings because of their young age and consequently earlier exposure to unhealthy lifestyles and chronic conditions.

This increase is associated with a lack of supportive policies in sectors such as health, agriculture, transport, urban planning, environment, food processing, distribution, marketing and education in developing countries.

Health professionals, policy makers and experts in the field of child development could use these findings to plan future preventative strategies for these children who are undergoing vast changes in diet and physical activity behavior. Strategies should include clinical management or public health intervention programs for altering body composition levels.

Awareness and educational campaigns that raise concern among parents regarding the future health problems that children might encounter due to unhealthy weight status at a young age, have to be pursued.

The rise in obesity calls for a shift in how public health nutrition and medical resources are allocated in the future. Culturally appropriate campaigns and strategies for interventions that would be effective for each of the diverse groups living in South Africa will also have to be initiated.




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