In some age groups South African girls have double the rates of obesity than the average for their peers. Credit: Flickr/ bibligrrl.

In some age groups South African girls have double the rates of obesity than the average for their peers. Credit: Flickr/ bibligrrl.

Almost 15 percent of South African primary school children are overweight, according to the latest data from the South African Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. But girls living in urban areas have more than double that rate – 30 percent have more body fat than is deemed healthy.

Today the international health community marks World Obesity Day under the theme ‘Ending Childhood Obesity: Act today for a healthier future’. But the World Obesity Federation (WOF) warns that unless South Africa urgently addresses the epidemic, by 2025 almost 4 million local schoolchildren will be overweight or obese.

“We know that girls are generally heavier than boys and that in conjunction with the rise in weight there has been escalating rates of certain chronic diseases in childhood – particularly diabetes,” said Professor David Sanders, from the University of the Western Cape.

Gender differences in physical activity

He said, women generally have a higher body fat percentage than men but that cannot fully explain the stark differences in obesity prevalence between genders.

One proposed reason is the different levels of physical activity between girls and boys in the South African context. A study conducted by North West University researchers among almost 300 adolescents between 2010 and 2014 found that boys performed much better in all four fitness tests used to assess the children.

They also found that more girls (19 percent) than boys (16 percent) watched television for over three hours a day, and were generally less active.

In the study, 17 percent of the girls were overweight but for boys the figure was only 8 percent.

Childhood obesity persists into adulthood

According to the Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa (HSFSA), recent research has shown 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.

Professor Ian Caterson from the WOF urged governments to act: “Introducing tough regulations to protect children from the marketing of unhealthy food, ensuring schools promote healthy eating and physical activity, strengthening planning and building rules to provide safe neighbourhoods, and monitoring the impact of these policies.”

According to HSFSA, “clearly interventions should already be addressed at infants and toddlers” and “the time to act is now”. – Health-e News

* An edited version of this story was published on