Understanding childhood obesity is key to fighting it

Childhood obesity can be caused by many factors such as genetics, hormonal imbalances and an unhealthy lifestyles such as high caloric intake and low physical activity.

Having the right information is key to tackling rising childhood obesity, says Shihaam Cader, the head of the dietetics department at the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital..

World Obesity day was on Saturday March 4, and Ms Cader says the hospital works with parents to help them overcome the hurdles they face in following a healthy lifestyle.

“Every effort should be made to correct misconceptions and to end stigmas within communities as another lifesaving strategy to prevent and treat childhood obesity,” she says.

A former children’s hospital patient, Larissa Davids*, was diagnosed with simple obesity in 2016 and was treated by doctors and dietitians at the hospital for seven years.

Larissa’s mom, Beverley*, says, “At first, she didn’t want to go to the hospital but later became so used to it and learned to get through it. It’s not easy for a child to visit a hospital and sit patiently while doctors run tests, but I think what made it easier for her was the nurses made her feel at ease.”

Red Cross paediatrician Dr Zakira Mukuddem-Sablay says it is very important to make the children feel at home and supported. “Only then can they feel empowered to make decisions that will benefit their long-term health,” she says.

Larissa says that even though her condition caused her a lot of physical pain, she did not want to tell anyone. “I rather kept it to myself. We managed the pain with the correct medication and lifestyle guidelines, which I am thankful for.”

Childhood obesity can be caused by many factors such as genetics, hormonal imbalances and unhealthy lifestyles such as high caloric intake and low physical activity.

Children suffering from obesity often experience complications with their physical, emotional, and social well-being.

“While having important conversations, sharing experiences, and supporting one another on a community level is imperative, being equipped with the correct information is equally as important,” says Dr Mukuddem-Sablay.

Below are a few misconceptions and facts to keep in mind:

Misconception 1: What you drink cannot make you gain weight.

Carbonated drinks, milkshakes, and fruit juices are high in sugar and offer very little nutritional value. Rather introduce plain safe water or water that has been infused with diced fresh fruit.

Misconception 2: Eating healthy is expensive.

Many South African families are living below the poverty line and often opt for foods that cost less but are of poor nutritional value and are high in fat, sugar, and salt, such as processed meat, fast food, and carbonated drinks. However, with the help and guidance of local dietitians and nutritionists, it is possible to enjoy a healthy diet that includes foods that are low in fat and sugar while working with a smaller budget.

Misconception 3: Childhood obesity is caused by genetics.

Parents often believe that their child is pre-disposed to obesity or may be struggling with a thyroid disorder or underlying hormonal imbalances. When asked if it is common for a child to struggle with obesity due to a genetic disorder, Dr Mukuddem-Sablay says, “It is not very common, it’s more likely a case of simple obesity, which occurs due to an intake of excess calories and a lack of physical activity.”

Dr Mukuddem-Sablay says if it is unmanaged, childhood obesity will lead to many long-term complications such as diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and mental health disorders.

“The best way for a caregiver to prevent obesity is to regularly monitor their child’s growth according to provided growth charts, which plot a child’s height-for-age, weight-for-height, or body mass index (BMI) for children over the age of five years.”

She says by regularly reviewing a child’s growth either at home or at the nearest clinic, parents can easily detect irregularities and put measures in place to avoid further onset.

“In addition to this, parents are advised to ensure that their children lead balanced lifestyles that include sports or light activities that they enjoy such as walking, swimming, or cycling.”

* Names have been changed.