SA has the highest rates of obese children in the world


  • South Africa has the highest rates of obese children in the world.
  • Unicef says 13% of obese children under the age of five live in South Africa.
  • Two out of three women and one in three men are overweight or obese in South Africa
obese child

By: Staff Reporter

CAPE TOWN - Next week marks National Obesity Week and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) says South Africa has the highest rates of obese children in the world.

Unicef's Alison Feeley says 13% of obese children under the age of five are obese in South Africa.

"There are various things government can do about restricting the marketing of these processed foods to children, they can look at restricting certain advertisements on TV or other media channels."

The Association for Dietetics in South Africa's Jessica Byrne says there has definitely been an increase in this pandemic over the last few years.

"Two out of three women and almost one in three men are overweight or obese currently in South Africa and it's also affecting our children too. About 10% of children under the age of five years are already overweight or obese. "

obese Family

SA is facing real health risks from the obesity crisis as kids growing heavier than US counterparts

Obesity rates among SA children have doubled in about six years, while this took 13 years to happen in the US.

Government's much-vaunted "sugar tax" may not be working to quell South Africa's obesity epidemic, experts say they have seen little change in the quantity of sweetened foods people consume. A study earlier this year revealed that South African children were fast becoming the world's most obese.

fat kid

The study, published in the International Journal of Epidemiology, found the obesity rate among children in the country was growing faster than in the US, which has long been considered to be the leader in this arena.

The study found that obesity rates among South African children doubled in about six years, while this took 13 years in the US.

This alarming revelation comes amid severe belt-tightening due to the effects of a weakened economy and food price hikes – although that's where the belt tightening appears to stop.

Experts said they have not seen an obvious reduction in sugar intake after the recent implementation of the sugar tax.

According to the vice-chairperson of the South African Medical Association (Sama), Mark Sonderup, obesity is a common phenomenon on the continent. The reasons for it are multifaceted, but the main contributing factors are bad dietary habits and unhealthy behavioural patterns.

He said: "the unfortunate part was that a lot of people turned to a high carbohydrate diet because these foods were cheaper and more accessible than healthy food". These poor eating habits were then eventually followed by children.

Sonderup said he felt the "sugar tax" was just another form of income for the government, it had not been rigorously interrogated before it was implemented.

He added he had not seen evidence that it was "reducing sugar intake".

obese Adult

Sonderup also noted that physical activity was seemingly no longer mandatory in schools and while this had not stopped children from becoming overweight in the past, it was very beneficial as it encouraged children to be more active and contributed towards children's wellbeing in the long run.

He said the most effective way of preventing a child from becoming obese was for parents to change their eating habits if they did not follow a healthy diet and a physically active lifestyle.

Dietician Lila Bruk agreed that the increases in food prices played a role in obesity, but that education about how to lead a healthy lifestyle played an even bigger role.

She said people needed to be more aware of what constituted a healthy and balanced diet as this would enable them to make better decisions when shopping for food items.

She was not sure whether the "sugar tax" had succeeded in reducing South Africans' high sugar intake, given that people had not stopped consuming processed and sugary foods after it was implemented.