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A heavy inheritance

South African children are becoming increasingly obese. And many of them are picking it up from the bad eating habits of their parents.

by: Michelle Shaw | 15 May 2007

Obesity is a big problem in South Africa. The SA Demographic and Health Survey (1998) indicated that 55% of SA women are overweight and 29% are obese. In addition, a study by the SA Medical Research Council found this country has one of the highest rates of obesity in the world among urban black women.

Dietician Zandile Mciza of Shelly Meltzer & Associates says studies also show that black women are generally more obese than white women (62%, as compared with 53%).

Mciza acknowledges one of the main reasons for the increase in obesity is growing urbanisation, as more and more people leave rural areas and head for the cities to look for jobs. Traditional foods are generally a lot healthier than many Western favourites like hamburgers and fried chicken.

A study by Dr Thandi Puoane, senior lecturer at the University of the Western Cape’s School of Public Health, has highlighted a number of crucial factors that significantly influence obesity levels among urban black women.

These include:
• Environment and socio-economic factors: There’s a serious shortage of healthy, low-fat food (for instance, most spaza shops and cafés sell only full-cream milk, and very few stock fresh fruit and vegetables) and an abundance of fatty, cheap food.
• Lack of knowledge: Most South Africans have little knowledge about nutrition.
• Beliefs and attitudes: Many black women see being big as a good thing, particularly in view of the widespread misperception that being thin indicates being HIV-positive.

These factors also obviously influence the eating habits of children, but they’re exacerbated by the influence of parental eating habits. There is a vast difference between school lunchboxes in affluent areas and those in less affluent regions.

“In the more affluent schools, all the food groups were there: carbohydrates (bread), fat (margarine), protein (cheese or lean meat) and a variety of fruit and vegetables,” she says. “At less affluent schools, lunchboxes tended to contain more fatty foods and less fruit and vegetables.”

Obviously, this has a lot to do with a discrepancy in finances and availability of food, but Mciza says knowledge also plays an important role. For example in less affluent black communities they don’t realise polony and Vienna sausages contain a huge amount of fat and not much protein. And there’s little knowledge about hidden fats – particularly in fried foods like potato chips.

Cultural beliefs also play a role. “In more affluent schools, the girls often brought left-overs from the night before to school for their lunch – but that’s just not done in most black communities. If you bring left-overs to school, you’re regarded as seriously poor!”

So what’s the answer?
Understanding why obesity is bad is the first step to living a healthier life – which is where education comes in. We need to reach children before they become parents themselves. Studies have shown that children who don’t eat many fruit and vegetables come from families where the adults don’t eat them either. Research has also shown that if children reject the healthy foods which the rest of the family eat, they’ll usually return to them later. Access to these foods is the key determinant of whether children choose and like them.


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