Obesity is a complex disease involving an excessive amount of body fat. It is a medical problem that increases the risk of other diseases and health conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and certain cancers (Goldman et al, 2021).
Obesity is prevalent in both children and adults (Bouchard, 2010). Childhood obesity has reached global epidemic levels and is a public health issue in both developing and developed countries. In 2016, approximately 41 million children under the age of 5 years were overweight or had obesity globally, about 25% of them in Africa alone (WHO, 2018).
Childhood obesity is of particular concern because it is associated with the early onset of risk of diseases such as cardiovascular diseases and diabetes and higher odds of obesity in adulthood (Reilly & Kelley, 2011).
Obesity usually results from a combination of causes and contributing factors. Obesity can be genetic or inherited through lifestyle choices including sedentary lifestyles and unhealthy diets such as the excessive intake of free sugars, especially sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs).
Consumption of sugary drinks or beverages with added sugar (sugar-sweetened beverages) is increasingly becoming a public health concern. Examples of these sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) include, but are not limited to soft drinks, fruit drinks, sports drinks, energy drinks, flavored/sweetened waters, and coffee and tea beverages with added sugars (USDA, 2020).
Sugary drink consumption contributes to numerous health problems among kids and adults. Particularly for children, it increases a child’s risk of excess weight gain, dental caries, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases (Malik & Hu, 2019).
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (2019) and WHO (2015), children are recommended to consume less than 25 grams (about 6 teaspoons) of free sugars daily to less than 5% of their total energy intake. However, most of the sugary drinks offered to children exceed their recommended daily intake.
They contain about 8 to 11 teaspoons of sugar which is equivalent to about 34-47 grams of sugar (Mututanthri et al., 2022). The WHO (2015) also recommends maintaining free sugar intake below 10% of total energy intake throughout life, with the aim of preventing, controlling and reducing the risk of NCDs in both children and adults.
However, several studies report that children consume SSBs on daily basis (Bleich et al., 2018; Kamstra, 2022). Children are usually introduced to these sweetened beverages during the transition from breastmilk to complementary foods and especially during their pre-schooling years.
And therefore, child health experts recommend that young children should not consume these sugary drinks with added sugars, especially during their formative years. Early introduction of SSBs during the transition from infancy reduces the acceptance of water and pure fruit juices as the only source of drink.
Nowadays, SSBs can be found almost everywhere; at home, in schools, at most social gatherings, and in most retail shops. According, to Adjei et al. (2022), SSBs occupy 20% of the total shelf space in most supermarkets/mini-marts in Greater Accra. Aside from the attractive display of these sugary drinks on the shelves of most retail shops, the food environment in most schools also advertise these drinks, exposing school kids to these unhealthy options.
Parents play a role in the consumption of SSBs among their children. Parents report that they sometimes get confused with the misleading marketing and labeling of these sugary drinks on the market. That is, the front-of-package claims and misleading marketing messages.
The labels on many of the children’s drinks appear to be healthy choices, with images of fruit and nutrition-related claims, featuring images such as apples, oranges, grapes, and many fruits, as well as high vitamins and mineral contents. Other drinks also highlight “no added sugar” on the front of the label. And this may not show the actual quantity/type of sweetener added. These kinds of advertisements mislead parents about the SSBs health value on the market (Millici et al., 2022).
It is therefore very necessary for Government to take a number of actions to discourage the advertisement, marketing, availability and accessibility of these unhealthy drinks to improve the health of the population. One major action that has been considered effective in reducing the consumption of free sugars is the taxation of sugary drinks, as recommended by the WHO.
Taxation of sugary drinks will increase the price of the drinks, decreasing purchases and consumption which will decrease the rates of obesity and diet-related NCDs. Taxing sugary drinks will additionally help save healthcare costs and accrue revenue which can be used to promote the health of the population.
It is time for the government of Ghana to step up and act now! Enact a tax on SSBs and implement other food related-fiscal policies, just like other nations have done. The lives of these children need to be protected at all cost.
By Annabel Yeboah-Nkrumah