Obesity an epidemic with psychosocial risk factors

By Kirstin Sylvester RD, SA

According to the 2016 South African Demographic and Health Survey,13 % of the children in South Africa under the age of five are either overweight or obese. That is more than double the global average!

When I was completing my community service year at Red Cross War Memorial Children's Hospital in Cape Town, many of my outpatients were obese toddlers or children. I found the ratio of patients being seen for obesity consultations compared to other nutrition-related problems alarming. Research has shown that children or adolescents who are obese are more likely to become adults with obesity. It is, therefore, vital that early interventions take place to halt the obesity epidemic.

A teenager with a high BMI (body mass index) has an increased risk of nearly threefold for developing diabetes as an adult and an increased risk of fivefold for developing coronary artery disease later in life.

For me, as a dietitian, these statistics are alarming and sad. When I think about the statistics and numbers, I think about the patients I have worked with. I think about their names, their faces; they are so much more than just a statistic. I have had children in the waiting room before a consultation vomiting out of fear and anxiety for their initial dietitian consultation, which breaks my heart.

While obesity leads to an increased risk of many comorbidities, I feel it is vital not to overlook the psychosocial morbidities. Childhood obesity is associated with depression, low self-esteem and a poor quality of life.

For children or adolescents with obesity, it is essential to focus on building healthy habits into their lifestyles and not focusing on weight. Dieting should not be the focus. Obese adolescents trying to lose weight could develop disordered eating habits in the process. It is, therefore, vital to work with a dietitian.

Healthy habits that can be beneficial to children and adolescents include:

  1. Increase physical activity by moving in a way that the child/teen enjoys, for example: dancing, soccer or walking. This physical activity must be maintainable on an ongoing basis.

  2. Eat more whole foods. Whole foods have been minimally processed and refined and eaten in their whole state, for example, fruit, vegetables, brown rice, and legumes.

  3. Increase water intake.

Children must learn to eat healthily from a young age. Learning to add in healthy habits and minus dietary restrictions is imperative for a sustainable healthy lifestyle.

For additional information or appointment enquiries, you can contact me at www.thehealthtitian.co.za or kirstin@thehealthtitian.co.za


Golden, N., Schneider, M. and Wood, C., 2016. Preventing Obesity and Eating Disorders in Adolescents. PEDIATRICS, 138(3), pp.e20161649-e20161649.

Nutritionweek.co.za. 2021. National Nutrition Week 2018. [online] Available at: <https://www.nutritionweek.co.za/NNW2019/messages> [Accessed 2 March 2021].

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