Many South African households are unable to feed their children nutritious food which has seen a rise in the number of kids living with obesity or stunted growth.
Angelika Grimbeek, Nutrition Programme Manager at HEALA, said malnutrition and the availability of ultra-processed foods (UPFs) are behind the increasing rates.
“There is inequality and poverty that do not allow children to access adequate amounts of nutritious food. Shockingly, 30% of South African children live in households living below the food poverty line,” said Grimbeek.
The root of the problem
She added: These households do not have the means to provide adequate nutrition to their children. Conversely, ultra-processed foods which are high in sugar, fat and salt, and sugary drinks are readily available and affordable. Unhealthy eating patterns, unfortunately, start from a very young age. Mothers’ rights to make informed decisions of infant feeding are manipulated by formula and other products which are made as substitutes for breastmilk . As the child grows up, they are further exposed to child-targeted marketing of UPFs and sugary drinks which leads to higher rates of obesity,” she explained.
HEALA is a coalition of civil society organisations advocating for equitable access to affordable, nutritious food in South Africa by building a more just food system.
A research report, commissioned by Black Sash, which aimed to understand the relationship between social assistance and child food practices in SA, confirmed that child malnutrition in SA has increased. The report revealed that one in four children, under the age of one, are too short for their age, and one in eight, are overweight.
Grimbeek said that if a child develops stunting early on, they can grow up to become overweight or obese. Furthermore, teenage girls are especially susceptible to obesity which can lead to diabetes, hypertension, and some cancers in their adulthood,” she said.
Nutritious food a luxury for most
According to the Consumer Price Index report, released in December 2021, over 12 million children under the age of 18 benefit from the Child Support Grant (CSG). The grant amounts to R460, which is R285 less than the current Food Poverty Line, sitting at R744,96 per person. This leaves a number of families unable to buy enough food for their families, let alone food with higher nutritional values.
Dr Portia Mutevedzi is a Senior Epidemiologist at the University of Witwatersrand (Wits). Her research includes working in the Child Health and Mortality Prevention Surveillance program, which is a long-term study that looks at all deaths of children under five. The cause of death is determined by doing a pseudo-autopsy from collected heart, lung, and brain tissue and background information using clinical records.
“We have a significant proportion of children that are undernourished and babies well under the required weight for their ages. This generally reflects poor growth. Another problem on the rise is obesity in children. Commonly, in our medium income bracket households, we see a lot of obese and overweight children. This affects children both in terms of their physical growth and mental development,” said Mutevedzi.
Food and the brain
Mutevedzi said that nutrition is important because it drives all aspects of a child’s growth.
“There are a set of nutritional components that a child needs to get in certain portions. So, when a child’s diet doesn’t include these components, there is an impact. For example, if they don’t get enough proteins, then that means that the development is also going to be hindered. If they don’t have enough carbohydrates, it means that they won’t have enough of the energy that they need. Especially for their brain function to drive the energy production in their body throughout the day,” she explained.
Mutevedzi highlighted that, similarly to the effect of a lack of nutrients, consuming a high volume of nutrients in food can also be harmful.
She added: “If a child has too much carbohydrates, the body converts this into fat which end up being stored, and eventually the child can become obese. The nutritional components in the food we eat is directly related to the growth in your muscles, the development of your immune system, and your brain. Different nutrients feed different spheres. We tend to give children sugary breakfast cereals like cornflakes and milk. This gives them a high energy and sugar spike, but no sustained energy for a child. So, they will be hyperactive but not attentive or have the ability to concentrate. When their sugar dips, then they won’t have sufficient energy for their brain to function for a long time throughout the day.”
Impact of COVID-19
“The coronavirus pandemic and lockdown had a huge impact in terms of a household’s ability to buy food and provide proper nutrition. On the other side, you also have households where they do not have enough income or any. Some are sort of in that transition of being between poor and rich. These people feel it’s okay not to cook and buy KFC, and for their children to spend time on their devices. A lot of this is also driven by children’s lack of activity. So, children spend hours watching TV or playing on a tablet instead of going out and doing physical exercise,” said Mutevedzi.
The examples above lead to undernutrition, while the other one leads to obesity. Both are equally dangerous when it comes disease and death. Mutevedzi also noted that a lack of education about what good nutrition is, is seriously lacking.
Mutevedzi shared research by Child Health and Mortality Prevention Surveillance (CHAMPS). It shows that 20% of households reported either having lost a job or some sort of income. Even if a job wasn’t lost, income was reduced or the death of a breadwinner was reported.
Obesity and lockdown
“COVID-19 had a huge impact on household income and the ability to feed children. What makes it even worse, is the fact that children couldn’t go to school to get nutritional supplements. Some of these children depend on these school meals in the absence of any breakfast,” she added.
Mutevedzi noted the impact that COVID-19 also had on the numbers of overweight and obese children. Due to lockdown restrictions, children were not participating in sports. They stayed inside which reduced the physical activity to help combat being obese or overweight.
“Another issue was with the closure of the markets. All fruit and vegetables usually available through tuck shops, open markets or street vendors, weren’t since a lot of them were closed. The access was very limited, which again, impacted nutrition to many people living in townships,” she said.
Younger children suffering
Dr Roisin Drysdale, who has worked in public health with a special interest in child nutrition since 2014, explained why SA’s stunting rates haven’t improved.
“Over the last 20 to 30 years, our stunting rates have been between 20 and 30%. We have a lot of children who are experiencing chronic malnourishment. The school feeding programs only start when you are at school so, children under five years old, do not have access to that, said Drysdale.
Drysdale is currently a postdoctoral fellow hosted at the Center of Excellence in human development, which is a research entity based at Wits University.
What is stunting?
Stunting is a condition of chronic malnutrition which affects physical growth. This means that you are shorter than what you should be, according to your age. So, if a child is not getting enough nutrients and enough food for a long time, it will affect them in the long term.
Drysdale said it’s especially problematic if a child is stunted in the first two years of life. She explained that the outcomes include poor educational progress, poor adult wages and even a loss of productivity.Joint child malnutrition estimates as provided by Unicef, WHO and the World Bank. (Photo: Scaling Up Nutrition)