Mon | Oct 22, 2018

Weighty problem! - More and more Jamaicans eating themselves into an early grave

Published:Sunday | October 29, 2017 | 12:00 AMNadine Wilson-Harris
Overweight woman at home eating chips, having a smoke and drinking wine.

An estimated 20,000 more Jamaicans will become overweight or obese this year alone, with one health expert fearing that the battle to shrink the waistline of Jamaicans will continue to be an uphill task until consumers start demanding healthier options from the food industry.

Professor of public health nutrition, Dr Fitzroy Henry, noted that at least one per cent of the population is estimated to move into overweight and obese status each year. A survey conducted last year by the University of Technology, where Henry is based, also showed that about 60 per cent of Jamaicans are currently in one of these two categories.

"Most of these will be kids, but it is also increasing in the adults. That is what the surveys are showing," said Henry.

"Right now it (obesity) is on the increase and people who don't think that they would have been obese are now moving into that category, and, of course, it is very much connected to chronic diseases, especially diabetes," he told The Sunday Gleaner.

The professor of public health was appointed to chair the National Food Industry Task Force, which was established by the Government last year to help improve the dietary landscape of the country in an effort to minimise the burden being created by non-communicable diseases.

The task force is set to have its first meeting with manufacturers this Friday to discuss healthier food alternatives, but Henry is adamant that the power to create change is in the hands of the consumers.

"You are not going to put something on the market if nobody is going to buy it," he said.

"The adversarial relationship does not work in the long run and you don't want it to go there in the first instance, but with the rates of obesity we are having, particularly in children, it might come down to that. The policymakers will have to make a decision at some point in the not-too-distant future," argued Henry.

According to Henry, while obesity was once confined to the rich, that is no longer the case.




"It hasn't left the rich, but you find a higher proportion now has emerged in the poorer section of society, and it is because of the food economics that exist in terms of what it is that they can afford," he said.

Added to this, Henry has found that "Chronic diseases are actually pushing people into poverty."

In the meantime, Executive Director of the Heart Foundation of Jamaica (HFJ) Deborah Chen believes the high level of obesity among children is a worrying trend, and argues that this is as a result of the increasing availability of unhealthy foods.

"A lot of the foods that are unhealthy doesn't give us any nutrition really, so if you have a bag juice, all you are having is sugar, you are not having any of the fibre or the minerals that would go with, say, an orange," said Chen.

"The reason why this whole issue is a concern is that the children will be obese and turn into unhealthy adults, who will then develop chronic non-communicable diseases. They will get sick and this will be a burden on their families because you have the hospital bills; it will be a burden on the country in terms of the economy because then they present at health centres and hospitals earlier," added Chen.

Concerned about the increase in childhood obesity, the Caribbean Development Bank last month approved a US$150,000 grant to the Healthy Caribbean Coalition to support childhood obesity prevention in four Caribbean countries

The HFJ will be responsible for implementing childhood obesity intervention programmes in Jamaica under this initiative to tackle a global epidemic from which Jamaica has not been spared.