In the past 25 years, the number of overweight or obese children who live on the African continent has surged from 5.4 million to 10.3 million, the WHO says.
Juana Willumsen, a member of the team working with the WHO Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity, says that urbanisation throughout Africa has contributed to these rising figures.
“There’s been a great change with people moving from the countryside to the city,” she told RFI. “This results in a change in traditional diets. People have also become more sedentary. They start taking public transportation and cars instead of walking.”
Africa’s children are also seeing a lifestyle change. They are getting less exercise and eating less nutritious and often more fattening foods. But Willumsen said it was important not to blame children for their weight problems.
“It’s important to recognise that it isn’t the child’s fault,” she said. “It has more to do with the community and society that they live in and the opportunities that they are given. Adults make choices about the foods on hand at home and school and the amount of physical activities available to the child.”
Willumsen highlighted the importance of studying how these changes were affecting children and young people.
“Children who are overweight and obese grow up to be adults who are overweight or obese,” she said. “So if we can prevent obesity in childhood, then we are avoiding problems later in life.”
South Africa is one country that’s seeing rising numbers of obese and overweight children.
Professor Anita Pienaar is a health researcher at Northwest University in South Africa. She’s done several studies on obesity in children. One found that one in 10 preschoolers was obese or overweight. The problem just got worse as the children got older and it crosses socio-economic lines.
Pienaar said that she sees children from affluent families growing more sedentary while children from poorer families are eating less nutritious food than ever before.
She thinks that South Africa is not prioritising this problem.
“South Africa has a high HIV prevalence, as well, and I think that it is just one example of illnesses that are higher on the priority list,” she said. “But it is a real problem and we should have specific policies that, for example, require children to exercise 30 minutes a day and then enforce them.”
There’s been an increase in obesity amongst all ages all across the developing world, according to Steve Wiggins, an agricultural economist and research fellow at the Overseas Development Institute in London who has studied changing diets.
“The developing world is unfortunately catching up with the bad habits of high-income countries,” he said. “And, across the developing world, obesity rates are increasing at a faster rate than in those higher-income countries. And, the way things are going, the whole world is going to be stricken. These illnesses are preventable, if only people could adjust to a healthier diet and a lifestyle with a little more exercise in it.”