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Rich but malnourished - Well-off Jamaicans eating their way to illness

Published:Sunday | November 8, 2015 | 11:00 AMChristopher Serju

ST MICHAEL, Barbados:

More than 40 years after implementing various interventions to address chronic malnutrition among the poorest members of the population, the region is now struggling to stem the growing incidence of malnutrition among more affluent Caribbean nationals.

Researchers have concluded that more persons in the region who can afford to eat better are now buying their way into malnutrition - a result of poor food choices - with obesity now emerging as the new form of malnutrition.

The research has identified this bizarre phenomenon as the major contributor to a spike in chronic non-communicable diseases (CNCD) among Caribbean populations.

The document, 'Hunger and nutrition from bellyful to body fuel', a publication of the Inter-American Institute for Co-operation on Agriculture (IICA), presents research findings that show clearly malnutrition is no longer synonymous with undernutrition.

"Undernutrition is no longer automatically associated with the poor, downtrodden and hungry. Malnutrition is now increasingly being associated with the other extreme - over-nutrition - which is linked to rising affluence, availability, easy access and affordability of a diverse range of food products generally referred to as 'empty calories'," nutrition experts have concluded.

"This has resulted from a rise in consumption of a diet high in refined carbohydrates, fats and salt, and a fall in consumption of fruits, vegetables, roots, tubers, legumes and nuts," the nutrition experts further explained.

According to nutritionist Lisa Hunt: "Such changes in diet and lifestyles, referred to as 'nutrition transition', are a direct and undesirable consequence of economic development. Such transitions are usually measured by expanding urbanisation and globalisation which enabled access to a range of 'Western diet' food products.

"These foods tend to be high in fat, sugar, salt, refined carbohydrates, and low in fibre, usually processed, fast and convenience foods."

 

Empty calories

 

The document which was released at the Caribbean Pacific Agri-Food Forum held at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill campus last week warns that while those foods referred to as 'empty calories' do satisfy hunger, they do not provide the body with the fuel it needs to power the various internal organs and external functions, the consequences of which are adversely impacting the overall regional health status.

"It is the overconsumption of such foods that has caused a sharp spike in CNCDs among Caribbean populations. Even more worrisome is that CNCDs are now strongly linked to a rise in adult diseases, among infants and children, particularly diabetes," the researchers noted.

In a review of school-feeding programmes in selected Caribbean countries, Robert Best (2012) observed that the type of meals served consisted mainly of bread made of white flour, with cheese or butter, rice and skimmed milk.

Best said attention to nutritional content during the early stages and attempts to make the meal colourful or attractive to the children were virtually non-existent.

With imports still dominating the regional food system at an estimated US$5 billion per year, Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago, Haiti and The Bahamas accounting for most of this bill, the document notes that both extremes of malnutrition can exist in a country at the same time.

 

Fats and oils

 

But much of the decline in health has come at the hands of Caribbean people, with the consumption of fats and oils estimated at almost twice the recommended level in 2002.

This was attributed to the fact that several popular dishes and bakery products make regular use of vegetable oils, margarine, butter and shortening, especially for fried foods.

As a first step to addressing this health catastrophe, 'Hunger and nutrition from bellyful to body fuel' urges Caribbean nationals at the individual, household and national levels to 'fuel up' on a mix of foods that have the greatest nutritional value and not 'fill up' on empty calorie foods.

"Although they are attractively packaged, tasty and filling, empty calorie foods, often called 'junk foods', contain little or no nutritional value. Choosing to consume too much empty calorie foods is detrimental to good health," the nutritionist warned.

christopher.serju@gleanerjm.com