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Dr Alfred Dawes | Health laws needed to address obesity epidemic

Published:Tuesday | January 16, 2018 | 12:00 AMDr Alfred Dawes
Dr Alfred Dawes

My recent comments about the takeover of school cafeterias by fast-food franchises have elicited responses from some of the affected companies defending the practice.

When something goes against your profits, you are forced to counter it even if it results in your actions causing direct harm to your clients.

So cigarette companies will pour funds into marketing and oppose any attempts at restricting cigarette sales. Even going as far as to speak highly about the goodly tax revenues each smoked stick generates.

The National Rifle Association will spend millions each year to ensure there is no ban on assault rifles, despite dozens of mass shootings each year and no real justification to carry such high-powered weapons.

And so the PR machine of those who grow rich from selling fatty foods to kids with expanding waistlines, is cranking up as a more informed society is demanding solutions to our obesity epidemic in schools.




The facts are startling.

The Jamaica School Health Survey 2017 revealed that 24 per cent of adolescents age 13-17 are overweight. More than half of the surveyed students ate fast food one or more days per week. In addition to our staple of patties (300-400 calories), schools are serving fried chicken (a two-piece having roughly 700 calories), fries (400 calories), rice and peas (300 calories per cup), as well as other high-calorie foods.

Although healthier options are available, studies have shown that sales of healthier menu options make up a small percentage of sales at fast-food joints.

When faced with healthy options versus the often tastier junk foods at a lower price, persons naturally go for the worse option. Imagine an adolescent, with less of an idea of long-term effects of immediate actions, asked to make that decision.

Providing healthy alternatives while you rack up sales of unhealthy foods is good marketing but does nothing to make a significant dent in the rising rates of obesity.

It would be interesting to see what is the ratio of unhealthy to healthy meals sold in school cafeterias.

We also need to look at what exactly make up these 'healthy' alternatives. In fact, a lot of what we Jamaicans have come to regard as healthy foods are in fact doing us harm.

We have been cultured to believe that yam, bananas and potatoes are natural foods and are healthier than rice and flour. So we pile our plates with these starchy foods as recommended by the old food pyramid and many nutritionists. But with each piece of yam containing 100 calories, it is easy to consume 400 calories of carbohydrates that will be stored as fat if it is not burned off by physical activity.




Physical activity is less among today's youth. It is no secret that watching videos, social media, and video games have supplanted playing outside. With less calories being burnt, it should come with a similar decrease in the calories consumed by children. Instead, it has moved in the opposite direction.

When I was growing up, eating junk food was a once-in-a-while treat. Even though we never enjoyed vegetables we were forced to eat them until their consumption became the norm.

What are we telling our kids by serving them high-calorie foods without them exercising enough to burn it off? With junk food in your face daily, are you not going to accept it as an acceptable first option?

Let's face facts. Foods that are bad for you taste real good. It takes willpower to eat healthy, and the strongest among us will give in to temptation when facing it daily. Forming habits of gaining pleasure from eating is a dangerous practice that leads quite often to obesity.



Students need to be educated on the dangers of consuming high-calorie foods and insufficient physical activity. Empowering persons to take personal responsibility for their health should start in schools and continue throughout their lives. The only way we can significantly improve healthcare for an entire population at once is through public-health laws.

Forcing car companies to include seatbelts in cars was a major accomplishment that saved millions from death and injury.

Restricting Big Tobacco marketing and locations for smoking have done more to decrease this habit than any public-education campaign.

And now it is time to take on Big Food. The Government must enact legislation to force restaurants to list the caloric values of meals in their menus. Fast-food franchises have no place in our schools and must remove unhealthy junk foods from their menus if they are to stay.

Instead, every time the conversation arises, there is talk from the powers that be of a tax on sugary drinks. No other measures. Just one silver bullet in the chamber. Mandating manufacturers to limit the amount of sugars they use would be more useful than a tax that would steer persons towards "healthy" fruit juices with added sugar, and for the poorer among us, syrup.

We must protect our children from themselves and ourselves from our own selves.

History is replete with examples of how laws have improved our health, chlorine in water, food handlers' permits, licensing of physicians and medical schools, seatbelt laws, mandatory vaccinations for children, among countless others.

It is now time for Parliament to act in the interest of the nation and address practically the obesity epidemic in Jamaica.

- Dr Alfred Dawes is a general laparoscopic and weight-loss surgeon at the Island Laparoscopy and Medical Care. Email;