The guide recommends that the foods provided at schools should be a reflection of what children learn about healthy eating in the classroom. Picture: Thomas Holder

South African teens are right up there with their US and UK counterparts when it comes to being overweight, a local study has found.

The study says SA teenagers are inactive and spend too much time on social networks, on their cellphones and in front of the television. They are putting themselves at risk of performing poorly academically and contracting chronic diseases.

North West University’s ongoing study on 14-year-olds also found that far too many children were either overweight or underweight – a risk factor for lifestyle disease such as diabetes, heart disease and hypertension.

Professor Andries Monyeki, the lead researcher from that university’s School of Biokinetics, Recreation and Sport Science, said the study’s data placed SA among the most obese nations – putting it in third place behind the US and the UK.

Monyeki said that while children were ideally required to walk about 10 000 steps (about 8km) a day to minimise the risk of lifestyle disease, SA children walked far less, and were finding themselves in a critical stage of inactivity.

Partly funded by the Medical Research Council and National Research Council, the five-year study was carried out among 256 adolescents – about 100 boys and 156 girls in Tlokwe Municipality in North West.

Started in 2010, it focuses on health and physical fitness activities of high school pupils and set out to ascertain whether an active lifestyle was lacking in their daily lives and if so, what could be done about it.

Body weight, height, triceps and sub-scapular skinfolds were measured while body fat and the body mass index (BMI) were used to determine underweight and normal weight of participants.

While the final findings will be released only in 2014, preliminary results showed that about 36 percent of the 14 year-olds were underweight and almost 14 percent were overweight – putting all teenagers in these two categories at risk of obesity, high blood pressure, cardiovascular diseases and diabetes.

Boys were found to be more underweight at about 44 percent compared with almost 31 percent of girls. The prevalence of overweight was 8 percent among boys compared to 17.3 percent of girls.

Monyeki said that while obesity was taken more seriously by many as it was associated with lifestyle diseases, being underweight was as problematic, with research showing that those who had a BMI of less than 25 were at risk.

“Understanding the trends of obesity and being underweight in adolescence is important because it is associated with adverse effects on health and social repercussion in adolescence and adulthood.

“Research also shows that being inactive not only affects your health later in life, but it can also leads to poor academic performance.

“An unhealthy lifestyle can in turn have a huge impact on personal and the state’s pockets because individuals become ill more often,” said Monyeki.

He raised concerns about children who spent up to three hours in front of television or cellphones, saying that an inactive lifestyle largely washed over to adulthood, resulting in a sicker nation.

Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi has been on a health drive to get more children to eat less junk food and to exercise more.

The ministry has suggested targeting fast food companies as part of the campaign.

School and home to blame for bad nutrition

A lack of knowledge about nutrition at home and at school tuck shops are to blame for rising obesity levels and poor nutrition of children, a city dietitian has warned.

Reacting to a study that ranked SA children as the third most obese in the world, Dr Martani Lombard, a manager of the Nutrition Information Centre of the University of Stellenbosch said that although inactivity was responsible for the poor lifestyle of many children, unhealthy food eaten at home and schools was also a major contributor.

“Lots of these tuck shops don’t sell healthy foods, but refined starch, pastries, chips and sweet cooldrinks. Many say they don’t sell healthy food because no one buys it. But the responsibility lies with parents,” she said.

Last year Westcott Primary in Diep River won R25 000 from Discovery Vitality after it was chosen as the school with SA’s healthiest initiatives. It replaced chips and chocolates with yoghurt and low-GI bread.

Dietary hints for children

The Stellenbosch University-based Nutrition Information Centre, otherwise known as Nicus, says that to provide all essential nutrients that a child needs, the meals and snacks they are given should include a variety of foods from each group of foods including grains, meat, fruits and vegetables.

General guidelines for children, particularly 12 years and younger, include:

* Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables every day (about five a day).

* Eat legumes such as peas, beans and lentils regularly.

* Meat and fish can be eaten every day.

* Use fat and salt sparingly.

* Drink lots of clean, safe water.

* Eat lots of fibre-containing grain products.

* Be active and restrict sitting time to about two hours.

* Sweets and snacks should be eaten in moderation. - Cape Argus