Deep within rural South Africa is a town in the Limpopo province called Ellisras. . Blink a little too slowly, and you may easily miss the road signs. The vast majority of the 55 000 strong population who live here rely on the Iscor coal mine or Matimba electricity power station for employment. The rest occupy themselves with subsistence farming and cattle rearing. Poverty is an accepted lifestyle and yet, with so many living below the breadline, a new epidemic of overweight is fast developing, clutching the poorest of the poor in its deathly grip. Two years ago, the Medical Research Council visited the region, examining the health conditions of children in 22 schools. What they have uncovered is a contradiction that has raised the hackles of the medical research fraternity internationally. Children as young as six years of age were displaying an early onset of hypertension, a condition usually associated with heart disease. Overweight became evident from the age of 10 to 13 years for both sexes.
The evidence was frightening. If children brought up in settings as rural as these could be falling prey to levels of dangerous weight gain, what would research indicate in urban populations, where financial disparity was less obvious and children were drawn to the bright lights of fast food outlets, and could afford to sit prone behind home computers and satellite television channels 24/7? According to The National Household Food Consumption Survey, 17.1% of South African children between the ages of one and nine living in urban areas are overweight. A year later, the London-based International Obesity Task Force (IOTF) undertook a closer examination. Their findings are even more disturbing. Ten per cent of children worldwide, some 155 million of them, are overweight or obese. While the report cited the highest figures in the United States, statistics revealed rising numbers of overweight children in less developed nations. In South Africa, it is said about 25% of girls from 3 to 19 are overweight. In a society weighed down by the influence of Hollywood perfectionism, sensitised parents are aware of the need to distance their children from the increasingly popular skeletal norm of movie stars and cover models. So how does a parent broach the prickly subject of extreme weight gain without destroying their angst-ridden teen’s already volatile self-image?
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