Be careful what you feed your children and how much food you put on their plates: you may be raising them to become obese and sickly adults.
Scientific research shows that obese children and teens are likely to become obese adults.
Several studies have also revealed that obese children will be at a higher risk of developing lifestyle diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, osteoarthritis and several types of cancers, and may also suffer strokes in adulthood.
In South Africa, obesity is reaching alarming proportions, not only in adults, but also in children.
Currently, about 70% of women and 40% of men are either obese or overweight.
And the first SA National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey – conducted four years ago – found that one in four girls and one in five boys between the ages of two and 14 were overweight or obese.
Medical experts put the blame on parents for the rapidly increasing rate of obesity among South African children, saying it is the high amounts of sugar and salty foods given to their offspring from an early age that is contributing to this emerging epidemic.
Dr Sundeep Ruder, an endocrinologist at Life Fourways Hospital and associate lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand, says what children are fed during their development phases is critical because “you are feeding information into the child while their hormones are deciding what to do”.
“The word hormone is derived from the Greek word, which means ‘to set in motion’. By putting the wrong information in children’s bodies at the early stages of life, you are already setting in motion all the wrong outcomes.
“What this tells us is that we need to modify the present for the benefit of our future,” he says.
Lynn Moeng, chief director of health promotion, nutrition and oral health at the national department of health, agrees:
“What we are seeing is frightening and if we do not deal with it [childhood obesity], we will end up seeing these children become overweight and obese adults.”
Ruder sheds light on what happens when children are fed the wrong sorts of foods.
“Studies show that a high intake of sugar in young children and pubescent teenagers affects the brain in a way that damages the prefrontal cortex, which is the area of reason, logic and judgement.
“The high sugar intake activates areas of the brain, including the amygdalae – two almond-shaped groups of nuclei – which are the addiction centres.
“A recent study, published in the American Heart Association journal Circulation, showed how added sugar increased the risk of cardiovascular diseases in children. Some of this data indicated that sugar had a direct influence on causing long-term cardiovascular diseases,” says Ruder.
“So, when we are seeing adults in their 40s with cardiovascular diseases, it means the information that created a high risk of heart disease at 40 was already planted when they were children.”
High sugar consumption has been proven to cause obesity and increase the risk of lifestyle diseases.
The latest research shows that sugar-sweetened beverages – soft drinks, fruit juices and energy drinks – are a significant source of added sugar and can harm children.
A local study, conducted in 2007, found that sugary beverages were the third most commonly consumed drinks among urban children between the ages of two and 14.
It also showed that infants aged between four and 24 months living in rural areas consumed sugary drinks two or three times a week.
Professor Karen Hofman of the Wits School of Public Health describes this as a toxic situation, saying sugary drinks contribute to weight gain because the body does not compensate for high-calorie drinks by reducing calorie intake later in the day, as it does with solid food.
“Sugar-sweetened beverages add about a third of the sugar we consume. They have no benefit in our bodies. All they do is increase the likelihood of being overweight or obese by 55% in children,” Hofman says.
“It is important that we let children know that sugary drinks are treats and have no nutritional value.”