Did you know that South Africa has one of the highest rates of child obesity in the world?

Recent research shows that about two thirds of South African women are classified as obese or overweight. It’s no surprise then that as adult obesity increases, obesity in children increases too.

Child obesity in South Africa is becoming more and more concerning, and parents need to be aware of habits and patterns that could affect the health of their children. Parents are overfeeding and under-exercising their children and the consequences are disturbing.

Overweight parents are raising overweight children.

Child Obesity in South Africa: The Stats

If that’s not enough to get you to sit up a little straighter, try some of these stats on for size…

Recent statistics show that almost two out of every 10 children in South Africa are either obese or overweight.

According to the Medical Research Council of South Africa, over 17% of South African children aged between one and nine living in urban areas are obese or overweight.

Some of you might say, “But I know all this. I know the dangers of bad eating habits in my kids”. Well, as with any other healthy lifestyle habit, sometimes we all need a good reminder. This is a weighty issue we cannot afford to ignore, and we need to be aware of the warning signs.

Child Obesity in South Africa: The Lifestyle

Our lifestyles are more fast-paced than ever before and there is often little to no time to prepare healthy meals for the family. Moms and dads who work long hours often choose the quickest and most convenient meals for school and home, not realising that bad food choices eventually turn into poor eating habits.

We live in an age of instant gratification: fast food, ready-made meals we can just pop into the microwave, snacks packed with sugar, sodium and unhealthy fats; the list goes on. We need to slow down and take stock of our eating habits for the sake of our kids.

Parents (and moms specifically) are promoting lifestyles, behaviours and eating patterns that their children are modelling. The habits we foster in our children need to change.

When is a Child Considered Obese?

The best indication of child obesity lies in their Body Mass Index (or BMI). This number is related to a child’s weight and height, and whether the two are in proportion.

If this number is higher than 95% of children in the same age and gender category, then the child can be considered obese.

The Causes

The number one cause of child obesity in South Africa is overeating (or being overfed by caregivers).


Obesity is usually the result of excessive calorie intake and low physical activity rates. In the same vein, weight loss happens when the tables turn: increase in exercise and lower intake of calories.

Most people would think that since children are growing at such a rapid rate at their age, dramatic weight gain should be almost unheard of. However, when we look at the frequency at which children consume high-fat and high-sugar foods these days, paired with little to no exercise at all, an increase in child obesity is understandable.


There are other factors that contribute to child obesity, and a genetic predisposition could be one. A child is 50% more likely to become obese if obesity runs in the family.

However, this is not guaranteed. Parents who commit to promoting a healthy lifestyle in their kids can turn that statistic around.

The Health Risks

The health risks for obese children are significant. Overweight and obese children are susceptible to a host of health-related problems, such as:

  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes (as a result of impaired glucose tolerance)
  • Gall bladder problems
  • High cholesterol levels
  • Joint problems

But it’s not all doom and gloom. There are ways to get it right, and it’s easier than you think…

Promote a Healthy Lifestyle in the Home

As with most good things in life, a healthy lifestyle starts at home. Luckily there are easy ways to foster healthy lifestyle habits at home.

We believe in the 1, 2, 3 formula:

  1. Eat well
  2. Sleep well
  3. Stay active
1.Eat Well

What does it mean to eat well?

Be sure to encourage a good breakfast every morning. Breakfast aids concentration, sustainable energy throughout the day, and decreases the likelihood of binge eating during lunch or supper. The best breakfast foods are ones that release energy slowly: like unrefined oats, whole grain bread or cereals, fruit and unsweetened yoghurt with honey.

During the day, kids should be eating snacks and meals that are low in sugar and fats, and high in essential vitamins, minerals, good carbohydrates and protein – all vital elements for healthy, growing bodies.

A child should never be on a restrictive weight loss diet – only a healthy eating plan. It’s important for parents to first identify what habits, patterns or eating behaviours are causing significant weight gain, and make adjustments from there.

It’s so important to develop healthy relationships with food in our children. Force-feeding could cause poor attitudes towards food, which could lead to eating disorders later on.

Food should never be used in the following situations:

  • As bribes
  • As punishment
  • As pacifiers
  • As a tool to manipulate behaviour

2. Sleep Well

Enough sleep is essential for early childhood development. Parents, we need to be strict about this. Don’t allow your kids to manipulate you in this area. Stick to a routine wherever possible.

Sleep deprived children often suffer from a number of these symptoms:

  • Anxiety
  • Mood swings
  • ADHD
  • Impaired ability to concentrate and learn effectively at school
  • Poor eating habits

The Sleep Foundation advises that:

  • Children aged 3 – 5 should get 11 – 13 hours of sleep each night
  • Children aged 6 – 13 should get 9 – 11 hours of sleep each night

3. Stay Active

The general consensus indicates that children today are far less active than they ought to be.

Media, gaming and entertainment have replaced fun and games outside, as more parents are opting to keep their kids indoors. Aside from the safety aspect of this, it’s simply easier to prop your kids in front of the television for a couple hours of blissful silence. This in itself is quite normal and easily understandable. The problem comes in when physical activity is replaced altogether.

Unfortunately many schools don’t offer physical education as part of their curriculum, and sports are often only manageable when a parent or caregiver is available to transport them to and from practices or classes.

If extramural activities aren’t possible during the week, try and promote physical activity in the home and as a family:

  • Go for regular walks together in the evenings or on weekends
  • Play sports in the backyard in the evenings
  • Play fun indoor games like Wii Sports or table tennis

Tips to promote healthy eating habits in children:

  • Avoid issuing tuck shop money regularly. Make it a rare treat. You can’t control what the tuck shop sells, but you can control when you give your kids tuck shop money and the kind of snacks you put in their lunchboxes.
  • Always check food packaging. Avoid snacks that are high in fats and select snacks that are unprocessed where possible. Most fruit juices marketed as “pure” fruit juice often contain added sugars. Default to water, and diluted fruit juices as a second choice.
  • Prepare school lunches the night before. Mornings are usually rushed and unpredictable. Lunch that is prepped the night before will reduce the chance of you issuing tuck shop money last minute.
  • Get your kids to drink more water. The sensation of thirst is often masked as hunger. So if your child has eaten recently and still tells you they’re hungry, first try getting them to drink water or diluted fruit juice. If they maintain that they are hungry, only give out healthy snacks like dried fruit, nuts or seeds in small portions.

By fostering healthy lifestyle habits, child obesity in South Africa can be reduced and even avoided. Hopefully these tips to promote healthy eating habits and physical activities will help you promote a healthy lifestyle for your family.