An overweight child splays out his hand. (Credit: Flickr/ Marina Kuperman Villatoro)

Credit: Flickr/ Marina Kuperman Villatoro

Parents “have the single biggest influence” over their children’s risk of obesity and need to “lead by example” and create an active and healthy lifestyle for the whole family, according to Professor Pamela Naidoo, who heads up the Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa (HSFSA).

While the international health community marked World Obesity Day yesterday, under the theme ‘Ending Childhood Obesity: Act today for a healthier future’, experts are voicing their concerns about escalating rates of childhood obesity in South Africa.

Children at risk of disease

The World Obesity Federation estimates that if obesity levels continue to increase at the current rate, almost four million South African children will be overweight or obese by 2025. They predict that, by then, over a million of these children will start to suffer from related diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure.

According to the HSFSA, children are particularly “vulnerable” to the modern South African ‘obesegenic’ environment – with growing affordable access to processed and fast-food.

But they urged parents not to lose sight of their responsibility in preventing childhood overweight and its related diseases.

“Being overweight as an infant increases the risk of being overweight as a child, which in turn increases the risk of being overweight as an adolescent and adult,” said HSFSA in a statement.

Poor nutrition from birth

Furthermore, children who are undernourished from a young age have higher risks of becoming overweight when they become older.

“In the South African context a stunted child in early childhood is seven times more likely to be obese later in life,” Professor Demetre Labadarios from the Human Sciences Research Council told Health-e News.

“In the household – that’s really where we lose the battle. From low exclusive breastfeeding rates to the preparation of everyday meals, parents need to make healthier choices for the entire household’s benefit,” he said.

Naidoo advised mothers to try maintain an appropriate weight before and during pregnancy and to exclusively breastfeed for the first six months – as recommended by the World Health Organisation. Research has shown that being breastfed can reduce one’s risk of becoming overweight later in life and of developing type 2 diabetes.

Parents lulled “into inaction”

HSFSA said “cultural beliefs and poor knowledge of the consequences of obesity lulls many parents into inaction”, and called on stakeholders to help improve nutrition and physical activity awareness in communities.

Healthy eating habits should be promoted from a very young age and parents should “set an example”, according to Labadarios.

“We have to see this in the bigger context. South Africa is not an exception, rising rates of childhood obesity is a world-wide phenomenon. But even one obese child is a problem.” – Health-e News