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South African kids are not only get­ting fat­ter, but they are start­ing to suf­fer from hy­per­ten­sion – a con­di­tion that used to af­fect only adults. A re­port re­leased by med­i­cal aid provider Dis­cov­ery Health last year found that 11% of chil­dren younger than 12 and 23% of ado­les­cents were af­fected by hy­per­ten­sion, also known as high blood pres­sure. Hy­per­ten­sion is of­ten caused by obe­sity and high-salt di­ets. It is life-threat­en­ing and in­creases the risk of heart dis­ease and stroke.

Although ex­act salt con­sump­tion in chil­dren is not known, ex­perts be­lieve that it must be high, based on the fact that adults eat dou­ble the rec­om­mended amount of salt each day and chil­dren tend to fol­low the habits of their care­givers. The World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion rec­om­mends that a per­son should eat up to 5g of salt a day, but South Africans eat be­tween 7.8g and 9.5g a day.

This, says Heart and Stroke Foun­da­tion di­eti­cian Jes­sica Byrne, is a scary sce­nario and some­thing needs to be done ur­gently to put a stop to it.

“We are see­ing this shock­ing trend in South Africa largely as a re­sult of the un­healthy foods we feed our chil­dren,” she says. “A diet high in salt is the main cause of high blood pres­sure. While we ex­pect to see high blood pres­sure in older adults, the phe­nom­e­non in chil­dren is now much more com­mon and very wor­ry­ing, es­pe­cially as th­ese chil­dren will have a much greater risk of de­vel­op­ing se­vere health prob­lems – such as heart dis­ease, stroke and kid­ney fail­ure – as young adults.”

A study con­ducted by re­searchers at Wits Uni­ver­sity in 2011 re­vealed that half the teenagers in Soweto eat fast food more than 11 times a week – far more than the re­ported fast-food con­sump­tion among ado­les­cents in the US, who are ranked high­est in fast-food con­sump­tion.

A kota (quar­ter) was found to be the fast-food favourite for Soweto teens. Typ­i­cally, this mas­sive sand­wich con­sists of a quar­ter loaf of white bread with fried chips, eggs, cheese, polony and sausage. Its pop­u­lar­ity is not hard to un­der­stand: a kota is cheap – start­ing at about R9 – ac­ces­si­ble and fill­ing. It also con­trib­utes more than half of a 17-year-old’s daily en­ergy re­quire­ment of 10 000 kilo­joules.

Byrne blames ad­ver­tis­ing for in­creas­ing obe­sity and life­style dis­eases among chil­dren. “Chil­dren are of­ten tar­gets for the ad­ver­tis­ing of un­healthy snacks. We all know that chil­dren are ex­tremely im­pres­sion­able and they are be­ing mar­keted at ex­ten­sively.”

But there is some good news. Gov­ern­ment has be­gun crack­ing the whip on pro­duc­ers of high-salt foods. In March 2013, Health Min­is­ter Aaron Mot­soaledi signed an amend­ment to the Food­stuffs, Cos­met­ics and Dis­in­fec­tants Act of 1976. The leg­is­la­tion re­quires that salt be re­duced in a long list of gro­ceries by 2019.

Th­ese in­clude bread, but­ter, break­fast ce­re­als, potato crisps, readyto-eat snacks, pro­cessed meat, sausages, soup and gravy pow­ders, two-minute noodles, stock cubes and jelly. The new re­stric­tions will re­quire that a loaf of bread, which is cur­rently 4.8% sodium, con­tain about 4% by next year and be down to 3.8% by 2019.

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