“Food is not just calories, it is information. It talks to your DNA and tells it what to do. The most powerful tool to change your health, environment and entire world is your fork.”
This quotation from American physician, Dr Mark Hyman, encapsulates the message that local nutritionists have been spreading this week as they observed Nutrition Week.
Community Nutrition Officer, Andrea Griffith, articulated the challenge, as health professionals on the island grapple with an epidemic of chronic non-communicable diseases (NCDs).
She said: “Too many Barbadians eat for taste and do not take their medical conditions or the importance of a healthy lifestyle into consideration. Lots of people still want to have, on a regular basis, a lot of unhealthy food like the macaroni pie, the lasagnas, the casseroles, all the fried food, the sweetened beverages.”
“And for some reason, when Barbadians think of snacking, they think of something salty, something greasy, something sugary. They don’t ever think of fruit, vegetables, whole grains or anything like that,” Griffith added.
There is a consequence to this behaviour which dietitian at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Meshell Carrington, sees on a daily basis.
“Our dialysis unit is burgeoning and that is the result of poorly-managed high blood pressure and diabetes. So, we are seeing a lot more people with chronic kidney disease,” she pointed out. “Also, we are having children coming into our clinic with Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and this is a very scary situation.”
Shanice Murray, nutritionist at a private fitness facility, said some parents were in denial about childhood obesity. “We, as a society, see big babies as being cute or being healthy while being smaller is associated with being unhealthy or starving. What parents need to understand is that the eating habits which are instilled in their children now, will continue on in life and then it’s very difficult to change when [they] are older.”
This point was supported by Carrington who advised parents to introduce their children to healthy food choices from birth. “When weaning babies into solid food, don’t start with fruit; start with vegetables because fruit is sweet and if you give them fruit first, they do not want the vegetables.”
She also advised that parents pay more attention to their children’s daily intake. “Children tend to drink a lot of their calories so you would have a child having three juice drinks a day. You have children eating too many processed foods like nuggets and hot dogs for breakfast,” she observed. “Give them something more nutrient-dense like eggs and canned fish like tuna and sardines. Encourage them to eat more fruit and vegetables. Start with their favourite fruit and gradually introduce others.”
Carrington said it was astonishing how many children came into the nutrition clinic declaring that they did not want to eat foods that they had never even tasted. “Parents must lead by example. Eating healthy is a goal just like every other thing in life. It takes time and small steps until it becomes a habit.”
Griffith, who works in the polyclinic setting, said education was a major part of the job.
“Patients come with their misconceptions. For example, there are many diabetics who link diabetes with sugar only and therefore think that they can consume as much carbohydrates as they like. They will tell you ‘my grandmother came up on ground foods and these are healthy foods so I can eat as much as I want’.”
It was important, she said, that they be educated about how starch breaks down into sugar, and therefore if they ate too much, it would result in a rise in their blood sugar levels. Another important lesson, the nutritionist added, related to meal preparation.
“Many of them are watching Food Network and they see fully-loaded potatoes, and sour cream and mayonnaise being added to creamed potatoes, so then we have to discuss with them the disadvantages of adding all those things to a meal.”
Portion control is also of vital importance. Murray recommended eating five times a day – breakfast, lunch and dinner along with two snacks but she stressed: “Portion size is important so we are not saying that you can’t eat the things you like, we’re saying that you eat those things in moderation. So, for example, if you like pasta, get half a cup or a cup and incorporate vegetables and protein.”
She said the five times a day recommendation always took her clients by surprise.
“They will say ‘What? To lose weight?’ but I let them know eating five times a day every two to three hours increases your metabolism so your body efficiently burns food the way it should and it wouldn’t store fat.”
She added: “What happens is that when you eat to time, five times a day, your blood sugars remain constant and don’t fluctuate so you don’t have that blood sugar spike. Constant blood sugar spikes over a prolonged period will predispose you to diabetes.”
All the nutritionists stressed the importance of incorporating daily exercise into a healthy lifestyle.