Overweight and obesity rates in children are a ‘national disaster

Obesity rapidly becoming a cause for national health concern in Israel.

Baby with fat rolls (photo credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)
Baby with fat rolls
(photo credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)
Child overweight and obesity are increasing in all parts of the country, especially in development towns, in the periphery and in the Arab sector, according to data published by the Health Ministry.
Dr. Olga Raz, head of clinical nutrition at Ariel University’s Faculty of Health Sciences, called the findings “no less than a national disaster.” Among the Arab towns of Tira, Taiba and Sakhnin, 41% to 48% are overweight, and 10% to 13% of the children are morbidly obese. Ashkelon’s children have an overweight-child population of 38%, and one in 10 suffers from severe obesity. Overweight rates in Bat Yam and Beersheba are 36%, and they are 34% in Nazareth, Afula, Nahariya and Eilat.
Cities with lower rates of overweight include Elad (22%), Ramat Hasharon and Hod Hasharon (23%) and Modi’in-Maccabim-Reut and Ra’anana (25%). These figures, however, are still too high for good health. The overweight-child rate in Jerusalem is 30%, Haifa 32% and Tel Aviv 28%.
The differences between the various localities, said Raz, indicate that in places where there is more awareness of nutrition and the importance of physical activity, there is significantly less overweight and obesity. Apparently, a better socio-economic situation provides advantages, she said, as a higher income comes with greater health awareness, access to health services and accessibility to and recognition of the importance of exercise.
While nutritious fish is relatively expensive, beans and whole grains are not expensive, said Raz. Chicken and turkey parts are also affordable, as are eggs and low-fat dairy products. Seasonal vegetables and fruits are not particularly expensive, she added, especially in the periphery – in towns such as Sderot, Taiba or Ashkelon they can be bought at open markets.   
But, she said, grain bread is still overpriced compared to white bread because it is not price controlled by the government – even though the process of bleaching flour takes longer than processing whole grains.
Raz noted that children in particular do not get fat from the consumption of basic food products but rather from sweets, snacks, colas and other sweetened drinks and juices, as well as from energy bars and cereals sweetened with sugar that are also sometimes rich in fats.
The clinical dietitian urged that educational institutions get rid of sweet, salty and fatty snacks in machines and kiosks. Supermarkets should not be allowed to place junk food next to cash registers to tempt children as they wait in line with their parents.
“Reducing amounts of sugar and fat in food is of immense health importance,” Raz concluded. “Studies show that sugar and fat have a clear epigenetic effect, meaning they affect gene expression – and this effect can cause blood-vessel diseases, diabetes, fertility problems, cancers and faster aging.”