Children in towns likely to be obese

Wednesday October 21 2009

By JOY WANJA

Children who grow up in towns are more likely to be overweight compared to their counterparts in rural areas, a new study has found. The children in urban centres pile on the extra fat because they play less and eat more fast foods, which are rich in calories.

And even among town children, girls were more likely to be overweight than boys. The research found that 16.7 per cent of town girls were overweight compared to 6.8 per cent of boys. In rural areas, 81 schoolboys were studied. None was overweight.

The study; Childhood Obesity and Physical Threat in Kenya, blames fast urbanisation that denies children the chance to grow up in healthy environments for growing obesity in towns. “Television screens and video games are their major leisure activities,” said Dr Vincent Onywera, the researcher who carried out the study in Rift Valley and Nairobi.

Dr Onywera is a lecturer at Kenyatta University’s Exercise, Recreation and Sports Science department. His study was carried out with the help of three Canadian organisations in collaboration with Kenyatta University. One hundred and seventy nine learners were examined in the study conducted between November and December last year.

Among the factors considered for the survey were the children’s waist circumference and body mass index (BMI), which measures fatness in proportion to one’s height, age and gender. Dr Onywera attributed the trends in towns to a shift from active traditional lifestyles to the sedentary urban ones, such as watching TV instead of playing.

Childhood obesity can negatively affect a child’s health or wellbeing. Eating high calorie foods when watching TV and sheltering of girls from household chores are some of the reasons girls reported a higher incidence of obesity. The other explanation could be that boys are more active.

“Girls are likely to be engaged in activities which are less energy-consuming and hence a high accumulation of subcutaneous fat in their bodies,” the university teacher said. Girls were also found to play less energetically than boys as they prefer to chat rather than engage in outdoor games.

Dr Onywera also warned that lack of national data on cases of overweight children could hamper efforts to reverse the worrying trend. Also worrying was the finding that rural children were more likely to be underweight due to the prevailing food crisis. “Children should be allowed to play and eat healthy diets, especially the traditional foods,” Dr Onywera.

Life-threatening

According to research, childhood obesity can lead to life-threatening conditions including diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, sleep disorders and cancer. Teasing of obese children by peers in schools can also lead to low self-esteem, which may persist even in adulthood.

Though genetic and environmental factors contribute to the onset of the condition, parents were advised to provide at least two healthy meals a day and add a portion of fruits and vegetables to their children’s diets. They should also encourage the young ones to play and exercise more often.

Early this month, the head of non-communicable diseases at the Ministry of Medical Services warned that foods rich in fats were the leading cause of lifestyle diseases like cancer and diabetes. “Lots of sugar and salt and over-reliance on fatty fast foods are unhealthy,” Dr William Maina said.