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Why are SA kids overweight?
A dietician looks at the causes of our children’s chubbiness.
Obesity has been thought of as a disease of the rich or affluent but this is certainly not the case in our country. Since 1994 it has been documented that the incidence of obesity in young children has increased drastically with 1 in 4 South African children being overweight, and 11% are obese.

Contributing factors
A number of factors have been identified which contribute to this epidemic of childhood obesity:

Genetic makeup

If one, or both parents of a child are overweight or obese, the child will be more susceptible to gaining weight. Obesity tends to run in families and obese parents are likely to have obese children. Studies are inconclusive as to whether ones' genes determine whether or not they are obese.

Interactions between genetic and environmental factors

Children with 'lean' genes may also become obese if they are exposed to what is known as an 'energy overload' or over-abundance of high-energy foods.

Research indicates that the most susceptible individuals are those with a genetic tendency who are chronically exposed to excess food intake. In other words, children with obese parents and a 'fat-prone' genetic makeup who are always overfed, will be more likely to become obese, than those who have no genetic tendency and are not overfed.


Certain population groups are more inclined to gain weight than others when they are exposed to a high-fat Western diet. When rural South African children become city dwellers, their diets undergo a radical change as they start eating high-energy snack foods and cold drinks instead of grains, fruits, vegetables, and sour milk.

Ironically, malnutrition and obesity often occur in members of the same family living in disadvantaged communities.

Lack of physical activity

Modern children - in contrast to their counterparts of 30 years ago - have become couch potatoes. They expend much less energy on physical activity than ever before. Endless hours of watching TV and playing computer games, are probably the major culprits.

On the other hand, many schools do not have the facilities to permit all their pupils to participate in sport, and other schools only concentrate on their best athletes, while the majority of less sporty children are made to sit on the sidelines. Whereas children in years gone by used to walk or cycle to school, buses and 'Mom's taxi' have become the norm nowadays, thus preventing children from getting exercise on a daily basis.

Changing eating habits

The trend of eating more meals at restaurants, buying take-away-foods and high-energy snacks, the increase in the availability of kilojoule-laden foods at every turn, including tuck shops, large portion sizes and skipping meals due to lack of time, not only contribute to obesity in adults, but also in children.

Psychological factors

Many parents express their love for their children in terms of food. 'Eat up, your Mom made this dinner specially for you.' 'Don’t cry, have a sweetie.'

If you have a problem expressing your love for your children, don't use this confusing type of coercion, as it may make them equate food and love in later life and cause them to gain weight every time they feel unloved or have to cope with a crisis.

Other parents try to exert control over their children by means of food. 'Think of the starving children in the world and clean your plate!' Making your child feel guilty when eating is a destructive approach that may distort his or her concept of food for the rest of his/her life.

If children are exposed to energy-rich foods at every turn and not encouraged to exercise, the inevitable result is an increase in body mass.

The alarming statistics need to be taken seriously and we should do everything in our power to prevent South African children from succumbing to the obesity epidemic.

What are your thoughts on children and their eating/exercise habits? Share with us below.

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