South African children will miss two or more months of school this year due to the lockdown, and are therefore missing out on school sport, while other physical activities are also limited to a large extent. This inactivity, coupled with eating patterns linked to life under lockdown, could have unwelcome effects on children’s health.
Children from low-income families could be worst affected, especially if financial hardship pushes households below the breadline. However, the pandemic poses lifestyle-related health risks for children from more affluent families too.
Prof Salome Kruger from the Centre of Excellence for Nutrition in the Faculty of Health Sciences says a study conducted to assess what children are eating and how physically active they are, has produced some concerning results. The study was conducted among children between the ages of five and nine years in the Kenneth Kaunda district.
“Almost half of the children were from low-income households. While most children had a normal weight, about 15% were overweight, 4,4% were obese and 3,8% were underweight.”
Prof Kruger says the results show that low household income limits access to expensive nutrient-rich foods, such as meats, dairy products and fruit. These foods provide protein, iron and calcium for child development and growth.
“Unfortunately children from low-income households ate cheaper salty snacks and fast foods more frequently than children from high-income households. These foods provide smaller amounts of key nutrients and too much fat, sugar and salt.”
Higher income, healthier food
The study showed that children from households with a higher income had higher intakes from some of the healthy food groups, namely fruit, meats and milk, but they did not eat vegetables more frequently than the children from low-income households.
She says children who ate sweets regularly, ate vegetables less frequently and those who had cold drinks more frequently, ate fruit less frequently. Children from low-income groups drank tea with sugar regularly, while those from higher income groups drank cold drinks more often.
“The latter group were more overweight or obese than the children from the low-income group. On the other hand, children with higher fitness levels and those who ate fruit and vegetables more frequently were less overweight or obese. These results underline the benefits of regular physical activity and fitness to prevent childhood obesity.”
Lockdown hinders activities
Missing school for two or more months means less physical activity for many children and could also lead to snacking out of boredom.
Prof Kruger warns that parents may be tempted to compensate for boredom by buying more sweets and snacks, or bake special treats for the family.
“Instead it will be a good idea to involve children in cooking and experimenting with new and interesting healthy dishes.”
Prof Kruger advises families to stay active by planning interesting walking or cycling trips. She says avoiding boredom, which may lead to unhealthy eating habits, is key for parents to ensure that children stay active and motivated.
She concludes that it is also an ideal opportunity to start vegetable gardens at home which can be an inexpensive way to not only curb boredom but also encourage healthier eating.
“Vegetables that can be planted during late autumn and early winter include spinach, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, spring onions, peas, carrots and beetroot, as well as herbs such as parsley and mint. Look for sunny spots with shelter from cold wind to plant vegetables.”
Prof Salome Kruger.