Childhood Obesity and Lifestyle Management

In South Africa, one of the primary nutrition issues facing the population is that of underweight children as a result of undernutrition. Successive national surveys have since shown a decrease in undernourishment in children. At the same time, however, the prevalence of chronic overnourishment is growing progressively. Childhood overnourishment is a complex disease, with a myriad of problems. Interventions are needed to address the duality of chronic undernutrition and the rapidly rising trend of overweight and obese children. If action is not taken, this increase will become a major concern.

The Causes of Childhood Obesity

Studies suggest that familial, cultural, social, economic and environmental factors influence the behaviours of eating, unhealthy or otherwise, and whether individuals engage in physical activity or not.

  1. Rapid urban and industrial expansion

    Due to industrialisation and urbanisation, evidence indicates that primary caregivers are more likely to spend most of their time in working environments. A study in Stellenbosch showed that children whose mothers worked more than 36 hours a week were significantly more obese. One of the reasons for this is possibly due to the replacement of high-energy, low-fat, high-carbohydrate and high fibre home-prepared meals with meals that are high in energy and fat (fast food). With limited time outside of the work environment, caregivers are resorting to faster, easier and unhealthier diets as a method of alleviating hunger.

  1. Lack of resources
  • A lack of adequate resources may lead to the purchasing of less expensive, energy-dense food.
  • The price of food influences the majority of individuals when they are grocery shopping, and will be more of an indicator for purchase than the relative dietary benefits of certain foods.
  • Despite improved education levels in recent years, there remains a distinct lack of health knowledge in the country.

    The combined effect of this lack of resources has led to more than 17% of children being overweight or obese.

  1. Overusing technology

    Studies have also shown that the overuse of technology-based equipment, particularly television, drives the unhealthy dietary and physical behaviour of individuals. Television, in particular, and the overuse of cars as a means of transportation has also contributed to an incredibly sedentary lifestyle and unhealthy eating habits.

    One of the primary examples of this is television advertisements, which often promote less healthy food products and seldom pertain to foods with high nutrient content, such as vegetables and fruit. To effectively combat this, government intervention is needed to reduce the advertising of unhealthy food products and encourage ads that pertain to healthy foods and promote physical activity.

  1. Socio-economic factors

    Another contributing factor to childhood obesity is environmental factors such as overcrowding and crime, which reduces participation in physical activity. Alarmingly, children from disadvantaged communities also spend a large amount of their time in front of the television, kept inside as a means of protection and supervision.

    The current rates of obesity and inactivity are measured by time spent in front of the television and levels of fitness, and this has shown to be particularly prevalent in communities greatly impacted by socio-economic struggle. Government intervention is needed here as well, to promote physical activity and direct more resources at understanding social and physical environments that promotes unhealthy behaviour and eating practices.


The Risk and Management of Childhood Obesity

In a recent NHANES-1 study, the combined overweight and obesity prevalence for South African children aged  6 – 14 years is 13.5%.  In the country, almost two out of every ten children are either overweight or obese. It would be accurate to call the growing trend of the disease epidemic, and urgent action needs to be taken to manage this growing concern.

Obesity can compromise health and development

Childhood obesity comes with a host of health-related problems. Probably the biggest health concern of the modern age is type 2 non-insulin diabetes. The clear links between obesity and diabetes is commonly known through the health community and it is therefore no surprise that as obesity rates rise, so does the occurrence of type 2 diabetes.

Further, childhood obesity can also significantly impact the development of the child, leading to such issues as reaching puberty far earlier than peers.

What can be done? Lead by example!

One of the most important things parents of overweight children can do is lead by example. A crucial predictor of adolescent obesity is having one or both parents who is/are overweight or obese. It will be a battle, instilling healthy eating habits and lifestyle choices for children, if parents are not following the same route and also making these choices.

As a parent, correctly managing their own diet and ensuring that there is adequate physical exercise in the weekly routine is the easiest way to teach children how to look to their own health.


Tips for healthy eating

One of the most common issues with combatting overnourishment and obesity is a lack of knowledge about managing eating.

Weight loss is a slow and gradual process, and is achieved by following a healthy, balanced diet and exercising on a regular basis.

To fully understand what lifestyle shifts are needed to be made to facilitate a healthier way of living, a registered dietician should be consulted.

But to start off, you can consider the following tips:

  • Try not to eat when you’re not hungry, or are bored or frustrated.
  • Reduce your portion sizes; use a smaller plate and try not to overload it with food when you eat.
  • Stick to three balanced meals a day, and eat healthy snacks in between if you’re really hungry.
  • Drink lots of water everyday.
  • Avoid unhealthy takeouts or eating out too often.
  • Cut down on alcohol, sweets and sugary drinks.
  • Eat slowly and enjoy your food.

One thing that is important to remember when trying to live healthier is to avoid ‘fad’ diets. They are generally expensive and only offer short-term results. In the long-term, weight is picked up again and it is often more than the original weight.

A balanced mix of good eating habits and regular exercise is the safest and healthiest way to manage obesity and ensure that you are living a happy, nutritious and well-balanced lifestyle.



Links / References:

The Lancet – Beat diabetes: an urgent call for global action. (6 April 2016). Retrieved from

International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity – Awareness of chronic disease related health benefits of physical activity among residents of a rural South Indian region: a cross-sectional study. (27 February 2014). Retrieved from

Discovery Health – Overweight children: puppy fat or predisposition to obesity? Retrieved from


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