School tuck shops are making your kids fat

South African children are eating too much fast food and spending too much time with their eyes glued to screens – and it’s having a negative impact on their health and well-being.

This is according to a new report by the University of Cape Town’s Sports Science Institute of South Africa (SSISA), which looked at the physical activity and nutrition of South African children and adolescents (aged between 3-18 years).

According to the report, which ‘grades’ 21 health categories, children in South Africa are falling victim to the ills of modern living, particularly when it comes to sedentary lifestyles (sitting behaviours, including screen time – such as using cellphones, television, computers and tablets) and easy-outs like fast food.

Sedentary behaviours and Snacking, drinking sugar-sweetened beverages and eating salt and fast food were the two general categories where SA kids scored an ‘F’ – where less than 20% of children met the necessary requirements.


Fast food and snacking

The other major concern was around eating habits, particularly with kids snacking and drinking sugary drinks, and eating salty fast foods.

“Despite the bleak economic climate in South Africa, the fast food industry is growing, and sales of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) are on the rise.”

In a 12-country study, South African children had the highest intake of SSBs of all countries, with children in the lowest income groups being more likely to have an unhealthy diet than children in the highest income groups.

“Although the sugar tax, and the salt regulations for food introduced in 2016 aim to reduce sugar and salt intake, we don’t know yet if these are impacting on children and adolescents’ behaviour. And while these policy initiatives are encouraging, the grade remains an F,” the researchers said.

The report also found that only around half of South Africa’s children are physically active enough, and even fewer are getting the necessary nutritional foods.

This has resulted in a growing rate of obesity among the youth, where the overall rate is graded a ‘D’ (ie, between 60% and 79% of children are overweight).

“Overweight/obesity is increasing in South Africa children and adolescents, with the highest risk in children aged 8-10 years old, and especially amongst girls.

“Other studies have shown that overweight/obesity are a concern amongst girls in rural areas as well, and that overweight/obesity places the health of South Africa children and adolescents at risk,” the researchers said.

Tuck shops

A major concern raised was that, despite efforts to make food available at schools more nutritionally complete, this is not regulated – and food bought from tuck shops or vendors are mostly
of poor nutritional value, high in calories, and full of added salt and sugar.

“This is concerning, as about 50% of school-going children in South Africa regularly buy food at school, and do not take lunch boxes,” the researchers said.

Of the schools that provide meals to learners, 40% have food gardens that can supplement these meals; but only one in five gardens are well maintained, and just less than a third have vegetables growing in them.


Sedentary behaviour

The researchers also found that kids are spending an increasing amount of time in sedentary positions, glued to phone and computer screens.

“There is no evidence to suggest that screen time use is declining, and it may, in fact, be increasing, as smartphones become more accessible and affordable,” the researchers said.

Children were found to spend an average of just over 3 hours on screens per day (not including school work), with only a third of children meeting the screen time recommendation for their age.

While technology has its place, screen time also takes away from face-to-face interactions between peers and can impact negatively the emotional well-being of children, the researchers said.

In another study with adolescents, screen-based social networking was linked to increased ‘risky behaviours’.

Close to 100% of pre-schoolers in rural areas met screen time guidelines, but 94% of infants and toddlers from a low-income, urban area were reported to exceed screen time guidelines, and more TV time was related to unhealthy weight.

“Although these children were below the age-range for the report, it highlights a potential problem in years to come. Since there is still only limited evidence, the grade is inconclusive,” SSISA said.

The current screen-time guidelines are as follows:

  • School-aged children: <2 hours of recreational screen time
  • Preschool children: <1 hour of screen time
  • Children  under 2 years: No screen time

A summary of the report can be found below


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