The rise of obesity in children in South Africa is alarming, nutrition should be taught in schools, says dietician

Father and daughter cooking. Picture: Supplied

Father and daughter cooking. Picture: Supplied

Published Jul 3, 2024


SOUTH Africa has seen a worrying increase in the number of children who are overweight or obese. This rise in childhood obesity is a serious problem as it can lead to health issues like diabetes, heart disease and even social problems such as bullying and low self esteem.

In 2022, the World Health Organization reported that one in every eight people worldwide was living with obesity. The number of adults with obesity has more than doubled since 1990, while adolescent obesity has quadrupled during the same period.

Shockingly, there were 37 million children under 5 years old who were overweight globally last year. Among children and adolescents aged 5 to 19, over 390 million were overweight, including 160 million living with obesity.

Responding to these alarming trends, B-well Foods recently launched the Taste Explorers Cookbook in partnership with renowned registered dietitian Dr Monique Piderit.

Featuring more than 25 nutritious recipes, this cookbook aims to assist parents in preparing healthy and enjoyable school lunches and dinners for their children.

The initiative builds on the success of previous efforts and underscores the importance of educating kids about nutrition. B-well Foods encourages families to transform everyday cooking into a fun and interactive experience, promoting quality time and healthy eating habits.

Chicco bites, research indicates that children who cook are more likely to make healthier food choices. Picture: Supplied

Why is childhood obesity increasing?

There are several reasons why more children in South Africa are becoming obese. One major reason is the availability of unhealthy foods. Fast food restaurants, sugary drinks, and snacks high in fat and sugar are everywhere, and they are often cheaper and more convenient than healthier options.

Many children are not getting enough exercise. With the increase in screen time from watching TV, playing video games, and using smartphones, children are spending less time playing outside and being active.

With the lack of physical activity, the rise in sedentary lifestyles, driven by increased screen time and reduced physical education in schools, exacerbates the problem.

Children often mirror their parents’ eating habits. If parents are not educated about nutrition, it’s challenging to pass on healthy habits to their children.

Childhood obesity is becoming a severe concern in South Africa, according to the South African National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (SANHANES-1).

According to the survey, about 13.5% of children from 6 to 14 years old, are overweight or obese, which equates to more than one in every 10 children. This number is disturbing and highlights the critical need for an effort to improve young people's dietary habits.

Piderit underlined the significance of tackling this issue right away: "With such a concerning statistic, it’s clear we must act now to improve our youth’s eating habits." Immediate intervention is required to address this rising issue and promote healthy habits for our youngsters.

The role of nutrition education

One of the most effective ways to combat childhood obesity is by teaching children about nutrition. When children understand what foods are healthy and why they need to eat a balanced diet, they are more likely to make better food choices.

Here’s how teaching nutrition can help:

Understanding food groups: By learning about different food groups and their benefits, children can understand the importance of a varied diet. For instance, fruits and vegetables provide essential vitamins and minerals, while proteins help build muscles.

Reading food labels: Teaching children to read food labels can help them recognise unhealthy ingredients like added sugars and trans fats. This knowledge can guide them to choose healthier snacks and meals.

Making healthy choices: When children learn about the impact of food on their bodies, they are more likely to choose foods that give them energy and keep them healthy, rather than those that just taste good.

Encouraging physical activity: Nutrition education often goes hand in hand with promoting physical activity. Schools and parents can encourage children to play sports, ride bikes, or play outside, which helps burn calories and keeps their bodies strong.

Schools can play a big role in teaching nutrition. They can include nutrition education in their curriculum and offer healthy meals. Schools can organise fun activities like cooking classes and gardening projects to help children engagingly learn about healthy food.

Parents can support these efforts at home by providing healthy meals and snacks, setting a good example with their eating habits, and encouraging their children to be active.

Simple changes like having family meals together and limiting screen time can make a big difference.

Balanced school lunches: Include a mix of lean proteins (like chicken, beans, eggs, yoghurt, milk, and maas), whole grains (such as wholewheat bread, crackers, high fibre pasta), and a variety of colourful vegetables and fruits.

This combination ensures children get essential nutrients to keep them energised throughout the day.

Healthy snacks: Opt for snacks that are high in fibre and low in added sugars. Examples include apple slices with nut butter, carrot sticks with hummus, yoghurt with fruit or a handful of unsalted nuts.

Nutritious dinners: Focus on balanced meals that include lean protein, a variety of vegetables, and whole grains. Incorporate healthy fats, like nuts, peanut butter, and those found in B-well Canola Oil and B-well Mayo’s, to support overall health.

The rising rates of childhood obesity in South Africa highlight the need for educating parents to make healthier choices and provide healthier food offerings for their children.

∎ Download your copy of the Taste Explorers Cookbook from their website and start making delicious, nutritious meals with your children.