Fight childhood obesity: Shop for healthy food on a budget


It’s sad but true: South Africa is one of the world’s most obese countries. While most people know and understand the dangers that come with obesity there are still many myths we believe about the condition. Childhood obesity is of particular concern as an overweight child may h ave a higher risk of being an overweight adult. We chat with Retha Harmse, Registered Dietitian and ADSA Spokesperson about obesity in our country and get some tips on how to shop for healthy foods on a budget.

A family history of obesity

Although many people feel powerless to fight obesity because most of their family is obese too. There is some truth to obesity being genetic though, however, you are never powerless to change it. Retha says, 40%-70% of your chances of becoming obese depend on genetics. “There have now been hundreds of genes identified which can contribute to the risk of obesity. Most of these genes by themselves have a small effect, but when combined can significantly increase the risk for obesity,” says Retha. “Proven strategies to fight weight regain are to adopt behaviour that helps overcome biology. These include monitoring weight, eating regular and healthy meals and engaging in daily physical activity,” she adds.

Obesity and your health

Most people consider themselves obese based on their BMI, institutions like insurance companies also use BMI to classify people’s weight, sometimes unfairly. Retha says BMI does not consider body composition nor does it consider other health indicators making it inaccurate. “Many people may be classified as overweight or obese based on body-composition and wrongly be classified or stigmatised as unhealthy or the other side they might fall within the recommended range for BMI but have health concerns,” says Retha.

A growing problem

Childhood obesity is a global problem with more children becoming obese every year. Many parents feel they cannot help their children without starving them or putting them through cruel diet and exercise routines, however, Retha says it does not have to be that way. “It is often carried into adulthood, so prevention and treatment are vital to stopping a global rise in obesity. Nutrition, physical activity, and healthcare all play a role. Parents and caregivers can help prevent childhood obesity by providing healthy meals and snacks, daily physical activity, and nutrition education. Healthy meals and snacks provide nutrition for growing bodies while modelling healthy eating behaviour and attitudes,” says Retha.

Children can be encouraged to adopt healthy eating behaviours and be physically active when parents:

  • Focus on good health, not a certain weight goal. Teach and model healthy and positive attitudes toward food and physical activity without emphasizing body weight.
  • Focus on the family. Do not set overweight children apart. Involve the whole family and work to gradually change the family’s physical activity and eating habits.
  • Establish daily meal and snack times, and eating together as frequently as possible. Make a wide variety of healthful foods available. Determine what food is offered and when, and let the child decide whether and how much to eat.
  • Plan sensible portions.

Look at the ingredients when shopping

Just because foods are in the health food section, labelled as no sugar or low fat it does not necessarily mean they are good for you. Retha says it is important to consider the nutritional value of foods, what you benefit from eating them rather than just the label. “Foods with empty calories have lots of calories but very few nutrients like vitamins and minerals. “Convenience foods,” like packaged snacks, chips, and sodas, are common sources of empty calories. Nutrient-rich foods, on the other hand, have a lot more nutrients concerning their calories. A few examples are vegetables, peanut butter, bran cereal with fruit, and fish,” says Retha.

The expense of healthy food

A quick visit to a health food shop is enough to have most South Africans pleading poverty, but Retha says healthy food isn’t just the expensive foods found in health stores. By making adjustments to the foods we eat most South Africans can be healthier and move further away from obesity.

Six tips for healthy food shopping on a budget


  1. Stretch the meat in your dishes by mixing in kidney beans, mixed beans, lentils, or even baked beans. When cooking mincemeat add soya, lentils, beans, oat bran, oats, and/or vegetables to bulk it out. You can also add beans, lentils, potatoes, and other veggies to stews, casseroles, and curries.
  2. Tinned fish, such as pilchards and tuna, is usually cheaper than buying fresh fish. Make sure to buy it tinned in water rather than oil as it is far healthier and contains fewer calories. Inland frozen fish also tends to be cheaper than fresh fish at the shore, so always compare prices.
  3. Buy unrefined whole grains as far as possible. Refining makes a product more expensive and strips the food of fibre, vitamins, and minerals. Standard Low-GI brown bread is for example often cheaper than white bread, and generally much cheaper than special bread and rolls
  4. Practise portion control and cook just enough for everyone. This will save your Rands as well as help your waistline. Buy only foods that your family will use up before it gets spoiled.
  5. Avoid buying convenience foods such as soda, cookies, processed foods, and pre-packaged meals. They are both expensive and unhealthy.
  6. If you cannot go without snacking, make your pre-packed snacks by buying a large packet of raisins, nuts, dried fruit, or pretzels and separating them into individual portions yourself. You can also snack on freshly cut fruits and vegetables.



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