Last updated on Feb 8th, 2021 at 05:11 pm

With the spotlight on obesity for National Obesity Week, now is the time to take a closer look at your family’s health and assess whether your child or children are healthy or at risk of childhood obesity. Because, the truth is, global childhood obesity rates continue to soar with 41 million children under the age of five having been diagnosed as overweight or obese since 2016.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) reports that the highest rate of obesity is amongst young girls living in urban areas. Being overweight as an infant increases the risk of being overweight as a child, which increases the risk of being overweight as an adolescent and adult. Results from the Birth to Twenty study in Soweto recently showed that girls who were obese between the ages of  four and six years, were 42 times more likely to be obese as teenagers, compared to their normal-weight peers.

ALSO SEE: Childhood obesity can lead to heart disease

If obesity in South African children continues to increase at the current rate, 3.91 million school children will be overweight or obese by 2025.

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The main causes of childhood obesity

In the latest 2017 SA Obesity report, Deputy Minister of Health, Dr Joe Phaahla, says, “The number of people within South Africa who are overweight or obese has been rising annually over the past few decades and this situation simply can’t be allowed to continue. Most South Africans consume less fruits and vegetables and more fat- and sugar-containing foods. The sad reality is that obesity is not confined to the adult population, but childhood obesity is also on the rise due to inappropriate infant and young child feeding practices. It can’t be business as usual when our exclusive breastfeeding rates are still very low, and complementary foods are introduced as early as two months.”

Too much sugar

One major factor of weight gain is excess sugar consumption. In South Africa, there’s been a sharp increase in sales of sugar-sweetened drinks and high-caloric, energy-dense foods. And it seems that families, including children, rely on these foods and drinks as a major source of energy – in fact, they’ve almost become staples in the home.

ALSO SEE: How to reduce your child’s sugar intake

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some additional factors that cause childhood obesity include:  

  • Genetics
  • Metabolism − how the body changes food and oxygen into energy it can use.
  • Short sleep duration (babies and children aren’t getting nearly enough good-quality sleep)
  • Eating and physical activity behaviours (this includes too much sedentary behaviour and a lot of screen time, plus increased portion sizes).

Poor family habits

According to a study published in the Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care, both children of overweight parents and children subjected to malnutrition during pregnancy or infancy are likely to become obese later in life.

How to reverse the trend and prevent childhood obesity

Breastfeed if you can

Numerous studies have shown that breastfeeding helps to protect against obesity in childhood. Although the exact reasons for this are still being determined, one theory is that exclusive breastfeeding limits the amount of unhealthy complimentary foods a baby is exposed to at a young age (sometimes as early as three months).

ALSO SEE: 4 additional tips to prevent childhood obesity

Change your child’s environment

Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization (WHO) believe communities need to work together to solve the problem.

Changes in the environments where kids spend their time − like homes, schools, and community settings − can make it easier to achieve and maintain a healthy weight. Schools can adopt policies and practices that help little one’s eat more fruits and vegetables, get at least 60 minutes of physical activity daily, and eat fewer foods and beverages that are high in added sugars or solid fats.

Get the community involved

Well-known chef and health food advocate Jamie Oliver has been on a quest to reduce the amount of sugar kids consume in general (but especially at school) and he’s continuously pressuring the UK and US governments to increase sugar taxes and help to limit the amount of junk food people eat.

In a recent public statement, he said, “We urgently need to make proper, meaningful steps to protect our kids from the future they currently face. We have many of the tools we need, it’s just about making the changes happen. This is a pivotal moment where it has to get personal. It’s not about a brand, a company, a government or a party anymore – it’s about people, education, truth and choice.”

Jamie believes that the current “bit here, bit there” approach for tackling childhood obesity was simply not good enough, and more urgent steps need to be taken to give children the healthy future they deserve. One of his suggestions including having kids’ BMI’s tested.

ALSO SEE: These foods make your kids fat, say researchers

Boost your child’s self-esteem

A negative self-esteem has been linked to depression and anxiety, which can cause children to overeat as they turn to food for comfort. If your child is showing signs of depression, it’s important to chat as openly as possible with her about what’s bothering her, show as much support as you can, and see a family therapist who can help to address the issues.

As parents, it’s also important to ensure that your child is happy, healthy and has the opportunity to make friends and get involved in healthy activities such as sports.