By Dr Cory Couillard
The prevalence of childhood obesity is increasing and health officials are worried that many parents think obese children are healthy.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the childhood ‘obesity epidemic’ is one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century.
More deaths are now attributed to being overweight than underweight. Large parts of Uganda are still plagued with malnutrition, but changing social and lifestyle factors have created overweight and obesity to become much more prevalent — especially in urban centres. Overweight and obesity is directly linked to poor eating habits and physical inactivity levels.
The widespread problem of high-fat street foods, trans-fat deep-fried snacks and soda is so great that it can be found on almost every street corner.
“It’s closely related to urbanisation and industrialisation. In the cities, there is an increasing lack of activity and cheap foods are more accessible and affordable,” says Dr. Timothy Armstrong from WHO’s Department of Chronic Diseases and Health Promotion.
The long-term problem is overweight children are more likely to become obese adults. Being overweight increases one’s risk of developing serious health conditions such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and certain types of cancer at a younger age.
Additionally, researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who analysed data from 27 countries in Africa, say the sharp rise in maternal obesity is threatening the lives of newborns.
Babies born to obese mothers have a 50% higher risk of dying in the first month. Poor eating and physical inactivity habits are not genetic, but often passed on from the parents.
As a form of babysitting, many children like to watch TV, play video and computer games, but this causes them to be physically inactive.
“Children’s physical activity levels have diminished significantly in recent years. Children once walked to school and played a lot, but now they are picked up and dropped off in front of the TV with takeaways for dinner,” says Constance Kekihembo, the chief executive officer of the Uganda Non Communicable Diseases Alliance (UNCDA).
“The problem is so great that our youngest generation is at greatest risk of disease and premature death,” Kekihembo adds.
Interventions such as limiting the amount of TV, eliminating highly processed foods and limiting sugar sweetened soda drinks can help lower a child’s weight and eliminate the risk of developing life-threatening health conditions in the future.
Up to 80% of heart disease and type 2 diabetes could be prevented and 40% of cancer with improved dietary choices and adequate physical activity levels.
It has been estimated that physical inactivity levels could be reduced by 31% through improved environmental interventions, including pedestrian-and bicycle-friendly urban land use and transport, leisure and workplace facilities and policies that support more active lifestyles.
Physical activity and exercise is needed for all — regardless of weight, health condition or age — to achieve optimal health and fight off disease.
Strive to get at least 30 minutes of physical activity on most days of the week — the more the better. UNCDA support centre provides free advice and health education to the public, parents and children with emphasis on prevention of non-communicable diseases.
For additional information, please visit: www. uncda.org
The writer is an international health columnist that works in collaboration with the World Health Organization's goals of disease prevention and control endorsement.