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​​​​​​Reversing Childhood Obesity Effects

By Dr Jack van Zyl, 6 September 2018

Obesity in young South Africans has doubled in just six years: less than half the time it took to do so in the US. Globally, childhood obesity has increased tenfold since 1975, with 41 million kids under age five either obese or overweight.

A quarter of these children live in Africa. What’s causing the obesity onslaught? Sanlam Group Risk Medical Adviser, Dr Jack van Zyl, says it’s a combination of factors such as socioeconomic changes and shifting nutrition patterns, not to mention increased inactivity. Luckily, new research shows that some of the effects of childhood obesity can be reversed if there’s an early enough intervention.

This Heart Awareness month, Dr Jack says it’s vital for parents and guardians to look after their children’s heart health. “The European Heart Journal published a study that showed that young people who achieved a normal weight by their twenties had the same risk for high blood pressure and high cholesterol as those who were never overweight. This is extremely positive as these factors can cause illnesses like some cancers and cardiac diseases down-the-line.”

Dr Jack says that although the risk for diabetes is still higher for obese children who are normal weight by early adulthood, the elimination of the higher risk of heart disease should not be underestimated, “In SA, five people have heart attacks and 10 people have strokes every hour. Collectively, 17.3-million die from cardiovascular diseases every year – that’s more than all cancers combined. We have to start our children on a healthy path from a young age to combat this kind of risk.”

Factors Contributing to SA’s High Childhood Obesity Rate:

  • Health starts at home: There are lots of reasons why parents/ guardians give children what many would deem ‘unhealthy’ junk foods. Sometimes it comes back to education and parents not knowing which foods foster good health. But the other reason is that energy-dense foods are occasionally cheaper so more accessible. There are also some problematic rituals that start at home – eating family meals together is a wonderful ritual, but it’s not great if every dinner is followed by dessert, for example. Kids – and adults – get hooked on comfort food quickly, which can lead to an unhealthy spiral of ‘emotional binge eating’. Lastly, we often reward children with food – ‘if you eat your broccoli, you can have ice cream’. ‘If you share with your sister, you can have some chocolate’. It’s easy to do this, but it trains kids to associate positive performance with an unhealthy reward.
  • Inactivity is a big issue: Especially in the age of the smartphone. The Atlantic published a controversial article titled ‘Have smartphones destroyed a generation?’ It basically attributed a lot of mental health issues to the isolation and inactivity brought about by smartphones. While this is a simplistic conclusion to come to, there may be some truth that the more screen-time kids have, the more inactive they can become. Physical education is also often no longer compulsory at schools so kids aren’t necessarily exercising there either.
  • The food industry is also to blame: Ready-made meals, for example, often have huge portions with high sugar content. Even seemingly ‘healthy foods’ aren’t always what they seem. E.g. Energy bars have extremely high calorie content so aren’t always the best option for snacks.
  • And so are diet fads: With little bodies and minds especially, it’s extremely dangerous to implement strict dieting. A blanket approach never works – everyone is different and requires different things. Today, especially, it’s so hard to be a parent with everyone trying to tell you what you should and should not feed your children. That’s why I believe it’s always best to adopt a holistic approach – everything in moderation – and to seek a dietician or medical professional’s advice.
  • Plus, our preoccupation with ‘pretty’ is a problem: Where are the snail bites? And the ugly-looking foods that may not look the best, but aren’t packed with pesticides and hormones? Around the world, there’s an ‘ugly food’ movement where people are purposefully choosing more naturally produced foods. That’s something we need more of in SA.

“Kids are extremely flexible so it’s vital to change their habits when they’re young. There are no quick fixes – changing a habit takes time, patience and positivity. Parents need to identify when there’s a problem and intervene early. It’s important that this intervention is done compassionately and sensitively. Obesity also brings about a host of prospective sensitivities and can be a very emotional subject so it needs to be handled thoughtfully and holistically, in a way that builds confidence in the young person.”

Along with the health issues that childhood obesity can bring about, Dr Jack says obese young adults also face higher loading on their health insurance premiums, “Every risk factor comes with expression time. In a 60 year-old, some of the risk factors will already have developed – for example hypertension could have led to a heart attack. But in a young person, they’re probably still going to develop, so you may have to load the premium to account for the unexpressed risks. That’s why an overweight 25-year-old may be paying relatively more for insurance than a 60-year-old with the same body mass index.”

Ways to Help an Overweight Child

  • It’s vital to build body confidence. Children need to feel good about themselves. One way to do this is to make eating healthily a family affair. This means the focus isn’t on one child, but it becomes something for everyone to work towards, together.
  • Seek medical help and visit a dietician. That way, you can get a unique diet plan that’s specifically created for your child. Sometimes, it could also be a good idea to get a child psychologist involved for extra support.
  • Get out and about as a family. Again, it’s great if you can make fun runs, hikes and outdoor activities something for everyone to get involved in. Ideally, kids should have about 60 minutes of physical activity, every day.
  • Limit the sweet treats and sugar-based drinks (remember that fruit juice contains high levels of sugar). If there are no treats in the house, then there’s no temptation.
  • Reduce screen time. Limit TV and video-game time and try and organise more outdoor adventures for the whole family.

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