Childhood obesity poses a health time bomb in SA

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This Youth Day, the Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa called on parents to recognise the dangers of expanding waistlines at a young age, and to take action.

Many working parents feel guilty about not spending enough time with their kids. This leads to many spoiling their children with unhealthy foods that, instead of becoming the occasional indulgence, end up becoming part of the daily diet. The result? More and more children are suffering from obesity and thus increasing their risk for heart disease.

“A shocking 20% of children today are overweight or obese, and one in three of our children and youth eat fast foods up to three times a week. With more overweight and obese children, we are seeing more cases of hypertension, high cholesterol and diabetes in children and young adults,” says Dr Vash Mungal-Singh, CEO of the Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa.

She says that every second obese child in South Africa suffers from high blood pressure, a known cause of heart disease and stroke. The risk of heart disease begins early in childhood and can even begin before birth, when the foetus is exposed to certain risk factors.

Heart disease is one of the biggest killers of South African men and women (after HIV/AIDS). One in three men and one in four women will suffer from some form of heart disease before the age of 60. This roughly equates to 29% of the total South African population. Preventing heart disease in adults, however, begins in childhood when eating habits and physical activity patterns are laid down.

The problem of childhood overweight and obesity is a worldwide one, with trends showing a dramatic increase in its prevalence – from 4.2% in 1990 to 6.7% in 2010 and are expected to further increase to a staggering 9% (or 60 million) by 2020. While many factors come into play regarding overweight children, increased consumption of energy-dense foods and drinks as well as decreased/no physical activity levels are the main culprits.

While schools can do a lot to prevent obesity, the main onus lies on parents to ensure their children eat more healthily, get enough physical activity and are aware of the many controllable risk factors for heart disease and stroke such as smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and excessive alcohol consumption. But if parents themselves are unaware of the dangers of obesity, then clearly the message will not filter down to their children.

According the South African Medical Research Council South African women have extremely high levels of overweight and obesity. More than 70% of women above 35 years old are overweight or obese. In the past 10 years, there has been a significant increase among men and more than 45% of those above 35 years are overweight or obese. Also 20% of children younger than nine years of age are classified as overweight and 5% as obese – a trend that has increased from 2002 to 2008.

“Obesity in children and adolescents is particularly a problem in developing countries and in low and middle-income homes in urban settings,” says Dr Mungal-Singh. She also warns that excessive television and video game exposure promotes sedentary lifestyles and decreased activity for children, all of which is bad for their hearts. “What is concerning is that nearly one in three South African youths report watching more than three hours of television daily.”

However, the issue of weight gain is one that most parents can act on right away. “Childhood obesity can lead to heart disease later in life. Risk factors for heart disease are determined to a great extent by behaviours learned in childhood and continued into adulthood, such as diet and exercise,” says Dr Mungal-Singh. “So don’t delay, start teaching your child about healthy living today.”