According to a new study published in The Lancet medical journal, childhood obesity has grown tenfold since 1975.

With 41 million children under the age of five either obese or overweight, and with a quarter of them living in Africa, parents need to appreciate the gravity of health complications that obesity can have on their children’s’ lives and on their finances too.

Quoting these alarming 2016 statistics from the World Health Organisation (WHO), Dr Marion Morkel, Sanlam Medical Officer, has hailed the tabling of a plan by the Department of Health last week aimed at ending childhood obesity.

Dr Morkel warns that they should not wait for children to ‘outgrow’ their overweight bodies.

In fact, she says the younger children are, the more harmful the extra weight is.

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“Childhood obesity takes a huge toll at a number of levels, but the biggest impact will only be felt during later life stages.”

Years swallowed by obesity

Morkel explains the threats posed by obesity at each life stage:

Childhood (0 to 12 years)

The biggest challenge for obese children is a lack of mobility.

“As a result, they become couch potatoes at a very young age. Also, certain fine motor skills are lost when they are not developed at an early age,” she says. 

Obese children also tend to experience psychological problems, which often culminate in mood and attention disorders, especially if they are bullied as a result of being overweight. Parents don’t always make the connection between their children’s mood disorders, and incorrect diet and lack of exercise.

“By far the biggest concern is the increase in Type 2 diabetes – which, in young children, is caused by lifestyle factors. Although the incidence of this has largely been limited to developed countries, it may not be long before obese South African children develop this disease,” says Dr Morkel. 

Adolescence (13 to 21 years)

At this ‘very sensitive’ stage of life, mood disorders among obese teens increase considerably, and they may become withdrawn as a result of non-acceptance by their peers. Self-esteem issues may ensue.

If inactivity continues, health problems created during childhood may snowball during these years. Type 2 diabetes is already being documented among teenagers in South Africa. Moreover, overweight teens face the possible early onset of puberty. 

 Adulthood (22 to 40 years)

Lifestyle disorders that used to be documented much later in individuals’ lives are becoming prevalent during early adulthood as a result of obesity.

There is a significant incidence of Type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome among people in this age group. South Africa is also experiencing an increase in osteo-arthritis, high blood pressure, cardiac diseases and certain types of cancer related to obesity, such as gastro-intestinal cancers and cancers of the female reproductive system. Obesity is also linked to fertility problems in both men and women. 

Middle age (41 to 60 years) 

“At this stage, complications linked to obesity-related diseases start to flare up and health issues related to being overweight really start to surface. We are starting to see more and more joint replacements in this age category due to wear and tear resulting from obesity,” says Dr Morkel. 

Senior years (61 years and older)

The biggest problem for obese older adults is mobility. Quality of life deteriorates and it becomes difficult to recover – even from treatable incidents like minor strokes or mild heart attacks, given the added complication of excess weight.

People’s eligibility for major surgery also decreases due to potential complications resulting from blood clots and infections.

The cost of obesity

Morkel says from an insurance point of view, excess weight affects the underwriting process and results in higher premiums.

“Being obese is a major health risk, and therefore also an insurance risk. Body mass index (BMI) is a major underwriting consideration in insurance policies. And insurance companies don’t only look at current BMI – they look at an individual’s entire medical history. Having Type 2 diabetes from an early age, for example, could have a significant impact on your underwriting and the premium you pay for dread disease and life cover.”

The need for a new approach

She says the problem of obesity, especially rising childhood obesity, requires a new societal approach.

“When you consider that 25% of school-going girls in South Africa are already obese, you can almost predict that obesity levels will be much higher when those children reach adulthood. The WHO has predicted that the next biggest epidemic is, in fact, going to be the spread of obesity. So we need a different strategy to fight this.

“We need to start approaching the struggle against obesity the same way the world approached the challenge of smoking. We need to change the way we view certain aspects of our diets in the same manner as we view banned substances, because as a society, we just don’t seem able to moderate ourselves.”

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While All4Women endeavours to ensure health articles are based on scientific research, health articles should not be considered as a replacement for professional medical advice. Should you have concerns related to this content, it is advised that you discuss them with your personal healthcare provider.