Jamaican teenagers, it seems, are increasingly vulnerable to the ballooning problem of obesity. A Ministry of Health (MOH) study done last year has found one in four young Jamaicans in the 15-19 age group to be overweight.
The ministry's warning that obesity in the young will predispose children and youth to a whole battery of degenerative diseases is one that should be heeded. Risk factors for heart disease, such as high cholesterol and high blood pressure, occur with increased frequency in overweight children and adolescents compared to children with a healthy weight.
Type 2 diabetes, previously considered an adult disease, has increased dramatically in children and adolescents. Overweight and obesity are closely linked to Type 2 diabetes.
In the United States, where the problem is much more evident, the Surgeon General there has put out a call to action to prevent and decrease overweight and obesity.
In 1999, 13 per cent of American children between the ages of six and 11 years, and 14 per cent of adolescents 12 to 19 years in the United States, were overweight. Over the last two decades alone the prevalence of obesity in children and young people has nearly tripled there.
As we have adopted more of the North American lifestyle, so have our weights. The main causes of the expansion of obesity are increased food intake, including more fats, and decreased physical activity. More controversially, hormones and hormone, like substances in foods and in the environment, linked to genetic factors, have been implicated in the fat problem.
It has been well-documented here, in the United States, and elsewhere, that children are spending more and more time watching television and using the computer. Physical activity, playing for entertainment, has suffered serious decline.
Television, computer and video games contribute to children's inactive lifestyles, with some 43 per cent of American adolescents watching more than two hours of television each day. Children, especially girls, become less active as they move through adolescence.
While poverty reduction has been a central plank of every one of our political administrations and is again an election issue, a decline in the comparative cost of food has led to patterns of higher consumption and of greater consumption of fats and proteins.
Peasant diets and peasant levels of physical activity don't produce obese people. The MOH study last year found that many adolescents do not get enough physical activity, and consume unhealthy amounts of fried foods.
The ministry has been preaching lifestyle changes through advertisements and otherwise. And their slogan, 'Your health is your responsibility', is most appropriate. In other places, tough measures have been taken in an effort to reduce obesity in children. New York City and the United Kingdom, for example, are tightly regulating what can be served for at-school meals. Quantities also matter. Serving sizes have been inching upwards.
Public education and, where necessary, regulation, is obviously important, but parents will have to also accept responsibility for the health of their children, in the first instance, and youngsters themselves accept more and more responsibility as they grow up.
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