Tipping the scales
Our children are in danger of living shorter and more sickly in the future, as the scales show that Barbados and the rest of the Caribbean are weighed down by obesity.
So serious is the problem, that officials from the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) have declared childhood obesity a public health challenge.
“Percentages range from 30 per cent to as high as 50 per cent; that’s the prevalence rate of obesity and overweight in the Caribbean population,” says Acting Chief Medical Officer Dr Kenneth George, who earlier this month attended a regional high-level meeting of health authorities.
Closer to home the latest figures paint a grim picture of the problem. Dr George tells Health Today our children are getting bigger, and that’s no laughing matter.
“The Ministry of Health has data to suggest that about 30 per cent of our school-age population is overweight and another ten per cent is obese. So the group is about 40 per cent.”
“In terms of obesity for adults, we are in excess of over 60 per cent of the population being either overweight and/or obese; that is Barbados, and the challenge is that we need to put a strategy in place that is a life course intervention that starts with children and I daresay even earlier than that because the studies have shown that chronic disease markers start at the time of conception and during the pregnancy,” George said.
Typically in our culture, a chubby child is more often than not preferred and often families may dismiss obesity as just another passing phase in the child’s growth. But Dr George cautions the consequences are far reaching and possibly life threatening.
“Childhood obesity later on leads to adult obesity, and adult obesity is associated with heart disease, stroke, hypertension and diabetes –– which are major killers now, and some forms of cancer. So that obesity is the forerunner. Why Barbados has almost close to 20 per cent of our older population having diabetes is the obesity epidemic, there’s nothing else that is driving it,” he argues.
Childhood obesity occurs when a child is well above the normal weight for his or her age or height. A doctor measures your child’s weight and height to compute his body mass index (BMI) to determine whether the child is overweight and or obese.
According to Dr George, though many factors lead to obesity, our lack of physical activity and poor eating habits are driving the epidemic.
“From our data, most children drink at least one carbonated beverage a week. Almost 75 per cent of the children [in the survey] drank at least one carbonated beverage a week. They are not attaining the level of fruits and vegetables.”
There’s no magic pill or wonder diet to fix the problem of childhood obesity. Dr George recommends that parents must make healthier choices for their kids.
“They need to try and inculcate fruits and vegetables in the children’s diet, and they need to also reduce the amount of carbonated beverages, the amount of salt they consume. A lot of these snacks have a tremendous amount of salt. We shouldn’t say don’t eat this don’t eat that and not have an alternative.”
At the national level, the Ministry of Health has already teamed up with the Ministry of Education to tackle the problem.
“We have produced guidelines for healthy foods in schools which we have shared not only with the schools meals programme, we have shared with cafeterias and canteens. And it’s not all gloom and doom because many of the cafeterias and canteens in our secondary schools have tried to improve.”
Dr George also recommends that critical stakeholders be enlisted in the fight against childhood obesity, as he expressed concern about the direct and indirect marketing of some foods to children. But, pressed on whether there’s a need for legislation to help reverse the problem, the Acting Chief Medical Officer suggested Barbados was not ready for such a move.
“I think we can try to do more education among our youths, among our parents, trying to let companies know of their social responsibility with respect to their products. So at this point in time I don’t think the ministry has put in place any effort to support legislation . . . .
“In moving forward we need to have a multisectoral approach. We need to involve not only education, but the Ministry of Sport, Family . . . and I think we will be able to make some in roads.”