In 2017, a study published in The Lancet on obesity trends in 200 countries determined that child and teen obesity levels had increased 10-fold across the globe over the last 40 years.
This study highlighted the fact that obese kids are very likely to become obese adults and consequently have significantly increased risks of suffering diabetes, heart disease, strokes and cancer. Kids who are very overweight are also at risk of metabolic health disorders like prediabetes, high blood pressure and psychological issues associated with being overweight.
In a review of childhood obesity in the May 2017 Obesity Reviews Journal, the authors concluded that childhood obesity causes lasting damage to the body! In this review, which collected data from over 300,000 people in 18 countries followed for 25 years, those who were obese in childhood suffered increased arterial (blood vessel) damage, increased likelihood of prediabetes and increased heart disease in later life.
In Zimbabwe, we are seeing trends towards increasing obesity, especially among urban kids.
We talk of an increasing “obesogenic environment,” i.e. one that promotes weight gain and prevents weight loss; the key components of this environment are largely related to what kids eat and drink and, to a lesser extent, their levels of physical activity. These obesogenic environments exist in the home, at school (tuckshops) and wherever the kids “hang out” such as their friends’ homes, the movies and shopping centres.
obese kids are very likely to become obese adults and consequently have significantly increased risks of suffering diabetes, heart disease, strokes and cancer.
The chief culprits contributing to kids gaining excessive weight (especially around their middle as “belly fat”) are sugary foodstuffs like soft drinks, fruit juices, sweets, ice cream, sweetened yoghurt and pastries. Did you know that soft drinks like Coke contain 10 teaspoons of sugar in a single can and fruit juices can have up to 12 teaspoons of sugar in a bottle? American teenagers consume on average 34 teaspoons of sugar daily, mostly in the form of soft drinks.
The World Health Organisation in 2015 stated that kids should not consume more than 3 teaspoons of added sugar daily else they risk tooth decay, behavioral disorders (like ADHD), obesity and increased risks of metabolic diseases. The other foods which contribute to the obesogenic environment are those that become sugar in the body like junk foods (crisps, corn curls) and large helpings of refined carbohydrates like breakfast cereals, highly refined sadza, white rice, pasta and “French” fries (chips).
Our kids are exposed to more and more influential advertising from the junk and fast food industry on TV and at the movies. Large scale studies have shown that the more food related junk and fast food ads kids watch on TV, the more likely they are to be overweight.
How do we combat the trend of childhood obesity? Well, there are some good lessons from which we can learn. Between 2012-2015, the city of Amsterdam in Holland achieved a 12% reduction in the number of overweight kids by introducing measures such as:
- Banning soft drinks and fruit juices at schools; kids can only bring water or milk to school
- Not allowing “sugary fest” birthday parties at schools, only allowing healthy snack foods for such events
- Running cooking education classes for kids on healthy food choices and preparation
- Facilitating regular exercise
- The city of Amsterdam refuses to sponsor any events that accept money from Coca Cola or McDonald’s
In a brilliant study published in the journal, Obesity, by UCLA Paediatric Endocrinologist Dr Robert Lustig in 2016, he showed that by simply eliminating added sugar from the diet of overweight kids who also had one other metabolic issue (like high blood pressure or high insulin levels) they achieved significant improvements in metabolic profiles with early weight-loss in just 9 days! Dr Lustig concluded that “Sugar calories are the worst, they turn to fat in the liver driving insulin resistance and driving the risk for diabetes, hypertension and liver disease.”
So here are the basic strategies to curb, prevent and manage childhood obesity (I write extensively on this in The Low-Carb Companion):
- Cut down severely on sugary foods, soft drinks, fruit juices and junk food.
- Provide kids with healthy, nutritious snacks like meat, avocado, nuts, cheese, vegetables and fruit; get creative and look for resources of information.
- Eat less sugary cereals at breakfast, rather go to school on eggs and bacon.
- Prepare main meals with less refined starchy carbohydrates, i.e. less sadza and rice and replace with more vegetables in addition to the meat or chicken being served.
- Encourage them to eat non-sweetened dairy such as Greek yoghurt rather than the flavored (sweetened) varieties.
- Encourage regular daily exercise.
- Ensure kids get their sleep!
Dr Jeans is a specialist sport, exercise and lifestyle medicine physician in Harare, Zimbabwe, where he has practised medicine for 30 years. He graduated in medicine from the Godfrey Huggins School of Medicine in Harare. After initially pursuing a medical career in the military and emergency medicine, he completed a postgraduate degree in Sports Medicine at the University of Cape Town. He is currently the Medical Director of the Rolf Valley Sports Medicine Centre, the Innovate High Performance Centre and the Low-Carb Companion Lifestyle Program. He has written many public information media articles and has given numerous lectures on topics relating low-carb, higher healthy fat nutrition to weight-loss, improved health outcomes and sports performance.