Childhood obesity is on the rise and Africa is leading the way

3 min read /
Growth & Development Nutrition Health & Wellness Obesity

According to the 2019 South African Child Gauge Report, child obesity continues to the rise in South Africa. At least 13% of children, under the age of five, is obese, while one in four children is malnourished and has stunted growth.

Africa is ranked as having the highest rate of obesity in preschool children in the world. South Africa was also listed as one of the top countries that have obesity issues, says Diabetes South Africa. Diabetes nurse educator, Christine Manga, says that by 2025, there could be approximately 3.91 million overweight (BMI 25-29.9) and obese (BMI > 30) school children. This would result in 120 000 children with impaired glucose tolerance (pre-diabetes) and 68 000 with overt diabetes.

Obesity, however, is preventable.

The causes of childhood obesity are complex. The most obvious causes are overeating and under exercising. What we do know is that what happens in the first 1 000 days of life sets the trajectory for health and development later in life.

Under-activity is one of the major contributory factors to childhood obesity. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends that children between five and 17 should be getting a minimum of 60 minutes of exercise a day. This can be incorporated into play and sport.

Overeating and incorrect calorie intake is the other main contributor. A child’s sugar intake should be no more than 100 calories from added sugars - 25 grams of sugar or less than six teaspoons a day. It is very easy to get these numbers wrong. A 330ml can of sweetened gas colddrink contains on average seven teaspoons of added sugar and contains 139 calories from added sugar (already more than the daily quota recommended by WHO)), while a medium chocolate muffin contains 364 calories and about 14 grams of added sugar. Therefore, discretionary calories becomes very delicate balance.

An average calorie intake for a child of the following ages should be:

  • 2 – 3 years = 1 000kcal/ 4200kJ per day
  • 4 – 8 years = 1 200kcal/5040kJ per day
  • 9 – 13 years = 1 600kcal/6720kJ per day
  • 14 – 18 years = 1 800kcal/7560kJ per day


Parents are the single biggest influence on their children and they need to lead by example. “We need to make healthy food choices as often as possible,” says Editor of the 2019 Child Gauge report and Education Specialist from UCT’s Children’s Institute, Lori Lake. Don’t keep high sugar and high fat foods at home. “Teach your children about healthy everyday foods and how to make healthy food decisions.”