Cape Town – Approximately 13% of South Africa’s children under 5 years old are overweight, according to the Child Gauge 2019 report by UCT’s Children’s Institute.
Chantell Witten, senior lecturer in the Faculty of Health Sciences at northwest University said these nutrition indicators should be a cause for alarm as they were not improving but rather, getting worse.
“The stats are not encouraging; we need to pay urgent attention and we are calling on government and all multi-sectoral partners to look at how we can improve child nutrition because nutrition also affects education, it affects the ability to function, it affects future wage earnings.
“We need better foods and we need higher access for all children. The diet of children, especially in poor households, is starchy, high in fat and sugar,” said Witten.
People’s Health Movement SA co-ordinator Tinashe Njanji said the accessing of nutritious and affordable foods remained a challenge for people residing in rural areas where there were high levels of poverty.
“Our rural areas are vastly spread, so for one to get fresh food, one has to travel, and the traveling comes with huge expenses.”
“When one gets to the shop/ supermarket, which are mostly in the nearest town and quite far, they don’t have many options because there are limited fresh foods in our rural areas, and even if one gets to buy the food, the means of preserving it is quite limited.”
“The level of poverty is quite high and this makes it difficult for people to access better options, fresh, affordable and healthy foods,” said Njanji.
According to the 14th annual report, titled “Child and Adolescent Health: Leave no one behind”, overweight and obesity in early childhood increase the risk for adult obesity, as well as associated conditions like high cholesterol, diabetes, and high blood pressure, all of which are shown to be prevalent in South Africa.
The report explained that “consumption of high-calorie diets, including those that are rich in salt, sugar, and fats, is a main cause of overweight and obesity among children and adults”. Known contributing factors also include household poverty and the high cost of nutritious foods, in addition to an increasingly sedentary lifestyle and maternal feeding practices and cultural beliefs regarding the ideal child weight.
Professor Lisanne du Plessis, an associate professor in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Stellenbosch University said ways in which South Africans could turn this bleak situation around included starting early – before and during pregnancy and up to the child’s second birthday, also referred to as the first 1 000 days of life.
“Many role-players should work together to develop good public policies to ensure healthy diets throughout the life course. Our food system should be transformed to provide us with healthy, fresh whole foods, and not only ultra-processed, unhealthy foods. We need to follow food-based dietary guidelines, based on research, to improve nutrition in the population.
“In addition, there should be public and social marketing campaigns to drive the regulation of food marketing to children. Lastly, there is a need for an enabling environment that promotes physical activity from the early years of life,” said Du Plessis.
Du Plessis said the recommended healthy diet for babies and young children was as follows: From birth, only breast milk for the first 6 months of life, followed by the introduction of a variety of healthy and appropriate foods at six months, with continued breastfeeding up to 2 years of age and longer.
However, he said, very few South African infants and children received this. “Our children are fed a diet of sub-optimal breastfeeding, low in diversity and low in good nutrients.”