Before the turn of the century, obese children were mostly seen in foreign films. Then, parents on this side of the world wondered what they ate that made them to grow bigger than their age.
Not again, as Nigerian children seem to be outpacing their international peers in obesity.
These days, it’s common to see a nine-year-old girl with secondary characteristics that are better suited to a teenage female body. The boys are not spared, what with the oversised breasts and buttocks that wriggle to and fro in extra-large clothes.
Experts warn that childhood obesity is a serious public health issue that government and parents should worry about and guide against.
Nutrition Specialist at the MART-Life Detox Clinic, Mrs. Idowu Ashiru, notes that though the problem is global, it is steadily affecting many low- and middle-income countries, particularly in urban settings.
The World Health Organisation laments that the prevalence of child obesity has increased at an alarming rate. “Globally, in 2010, the number of overweight children under the age of five is estimated to be over 42 million. Close to 35 million of these are living in developing countries,” WHO notes.
Overweight and obesity are defined as “abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that presents a risk to health.”
But then, what causes overweight or obesity among children? Nutritionists say it’s an increased consumption of highly calorific foods without an equal increase in physical activity.
“This leads to an unhealthy increase in weight. Decreased levels of physical activity will also result in an energy imbalance and lead to weight gain,” Ashiru explains.
Sad to say, for most children of school age in Nigeria, the closest they ever come to doing exercise is running around the neighbourhood. Most schools would rather maximise the available space by building classrooms than reserving portions for fields where pupils can engage in physical exercise.
Again, most school owners see the employment of Physical Education instructors as a waste of funds, hence many schools don’t have one.
“All these have repercussions for children’s cognitive and physical well-being,” Professor of Guidance and Counselling at the University of Lagos, Prof. Mopelola Omoegun, warns.
A Nigerian researcher, Dr. Adeola Aderounmu, notes that in general, excess food intake is primarily responsible for incidence of obesity.
Omoegun adds that beyond foods, more than ever, life is sedentary, as kids spend more time playing with electronic devices — from computers to hand-held video game systems, IPads, IPods, etc., instead of actively playing outside.
“Television is a major culprit. For many kids, once they get home from school, virtually all of their free time is spent in front of one screen or another,” Omoegun, who is also the Dean of the Faculty of Education UNILAG, says.