Tue, Jan

Purchased Morbidity; The Looming Health Hazard of Tomorrow’s Ghanaian. Image credit - Jesper Sehested

Thoughts From Afar
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The problem of childhood obesity and the associated chronic disease that our children may inherit down the line are not signs of affluence; they are purchased ...

 Richard Louv argues in his book Last Child in the Woods that, “Parents are told to turn off the TV and restrict video game time, but we hear little about what the kids should do physically during their non-electronic time. The usual suggestion is organized sports. But consider this: The obesity epidemic coincides with the greatest increase in organized children’s sports in history.”

Last week, I looked at a lot of literature relating to the increased tendency of today’s urban Ghanaian children to be overweight and the correlation with the level of education of their parents. On the surface, most data seemed to suggest that the more educated the parents, especially mothers were the higher the likelihood it was for offspring to be obese. This information flew in the face of all logic and data from countries with more structured health systems where higher education is associated with more healthy lifestyles with a special emphasis on physical activity and weight control.

The contrarian in me decided to gain an understanding of why our data seemed to be against the trend. I try to present my findings today concerning as they may be. Our society traditionally has been plagued with a misconception that a rounded body is a sign of affluence. In fact, there have been instances when families have shown concern because advancements in the social and career stature of members have not come with a commensurate increase in body weight. Anecdotal evidence exists of open conversations about this and recommendations of all sort of appetite enhancers to ensure the norm was achieved.


Purchased Morbidity; The Looming Health Hazard of Tomorrow’s Ghanaian

As a result of this societal pressure coupled with an ever-increasing middle class having a lot more to spend thanks to educational related social mobility, it is coming across as though education is the underpinning of this trend. This is a view I strongly disagree with. My reading has led me to believe the correlation is more to do with the wrong choices made than it is to do with the attainment of higher education.

Middle-class parents, having evolved past the lower levels of the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to the midpoint where love and belonging are their biggest requirements, are confronted with bringing up children who have not experienced the lower levels themselves. In situations like this, the onus falls on the parents to make decisions on the children’s behalf; often requiring the use of the word “no.” Ironically, many of us have not evolved to the point where the emotions of our children in times of rejection can be managed appropriately. To some, it is much easier to give in to the tantrums of a child than it is to deal with the emotional blackmail that may follow.

Ghanaian shool kids wait for breakfast outside a KFC eatery.

Ghanaian shool kids wait for breakfast outside a KFC eatery.

Then there is the issue of the proliferation of all sorts of junk food outlets that have coincided with our relative affluence and the peer pressure associated with being seen to visit same. Compounding this further is the fact that many are time-strapped thanks to their busy schedules and find these fast foods an easy option to get the children fed. Forgetting that these high calories of these foods would require considerable physical activity to be burnt off lest they get stored by the body as fat deposits in adipose tissues.

Unfortunately, our movement up the hierarchy of needs triangle has also coincided with less physical activity for our children. Indeed, for some to meet their social stature, they enroll their offspring’s into weekend sporting activities, more for the status symbol than to actually exercise. Secondly, having led sedentary lives all week binging on junk, it is preposterous to think a few of hours of such physical activity is all it takes to keep children fit and of ideal body weight.

In my view, this emerging situation needs urgent attention. A recent article published by Aryeetey et al. in BMC Obesity involving 3089 children (9–15 years) recruited from Accra and Kumasi indicated that 17% of children were overweight or obese.  It further stated that children who reported lower participation (less than 3 times/week) in sports activity were 44% more likely to be overweight or obese. This for me is the biggest indicator that we are sitting on a ticking morbidity time bomb.

Obesity is associated with significant health risks. Primary amongst them is Type II non-insulin dependent diabetes, where the body produces the requisite amounts of insulin but the extra body mass accumulated over the years makes the insulin inadequate to regulate the body’s sugar levels. Then there is high cholesterol, coronary heart disease and the associated risks of strokes and heart attacks. As though that’s not enough, in recent times, certain cancers especially breast and bowel cancer have been linked with obesity. To top it all up, excess body weight has been shown to be associated with lower self-esteem, affect the quality of life and lead to psychological problems, such as depression.

It cannot be right that in our effort to lead a life of pseudo-luxury, we mortgage the future health of our children and confine them to the potential of perpetual disease servitude. In fact, I will opine that it is even criminal and an indictment on a country that lacks in many aspects of human resource capital that those most likely to take over the reins are nurtured such that the risk of their lives being cut short in their prime is exceedingly higher than ours.

Burying our heads in the sand isn’t an option either; at least this is one area of our life that we can fix devoid of excessive institutional involvement. Simple fixes like taking control of what our children eat through judicious shopping habits are not too much to ask for. Cutting down on eat outs or if unavoidable making healthy choices of eateries is an option too. Then there is the realisation that our children are not glass and will not break. Habits we used to enjoy like playing outside and running around, though frowned upon now in part due to excessive traffic in many urban residential areas, must be revisited. Our tendency to build wall to wall concrete jungles in every new development may have aesthetic value but with significant health implications. This emerging crisis may require a relook at our architectural behaviour and the role of green spaces on the health of this nation.

I will end by saying we are all parents foremost and friends of our progeny a distant second. We are entrusted with the custody of these children so we can create in them the Ghanaian we all seem to want. One that will be healthy, time conscious, audacious, put the country first and shun corruption. To achieve this we must learn to say “no” dealing with the potential emotional blackmail that may follow in its wake. We need to understand that not doing so is the beginning of sending the wrong message. A message that will eventually lead us doing the bribery route as we try to gain their pleasing. This will then spiral and create the very Ghanaian that we are as parents. One who believes cronyism and nepotism are the routes to gaining favour. We cannot let our children become us and cannot let ourselves and this country down.

The problem of childhood obesity and the associated chronic disease that our children may inherit down the line are not signs of affluence; they are purchased and a manifestation of our intransigent failure to make the right choices.

Like it is said, “Attitude is a choice. Happiness is a choice. Optimism is a choice. Kindness is a choice. Giving is a choice. Respect is a choice. Whatever choice you make makes you. Choose wisely.” For the sake of the future of our children and the country let’s heed this advice.


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