Childhood obesity in Barbados has reached alarming proportions, and any programmes implemented to deal with this problem must address some of our cultural traditions, as well as new habits we have adopted from our more developed neighbours.
This was the consensus reached following a presentation on childhood obesity to the National Committee Monitoring the Rights of the Child, held recently at the Government’s Warrens Office Complex.
Consultant Pediatrician at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Professor Anne St. John, revealed that, “over the last several decades, Barbados has managed to conquer kwashiorkor and other illnesses caused by nutrient deficiencies, mostly thanks to the efforts of Dr Frank Ramsay, but now we have gone from under-feeding to overeating, and obesity is a form of malnutrition.”
She stated that Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) Director, Dr Godfrey Searle, had estimated that the average Barbadian was now consuming 400 calories more per day than 30 years ago, and those extra calories all came in the form of fat.
Quoting figures from surveys done in Barbados, Dr St. John said, “A 2012 survey done among 609 Class 3 (children ages 9-10) students drawn from Government primary schools, showed 31 per cent of them were overweight, and 17 per cent showed signs of high blood pressure. A 2005 study revealed that 27 per cent of the students were obese, and the number of obese girls was higher than boys.”
The leading pediatrician said the situation in other Caribbean islands was just as dire. “In the Bahamas where they do annual weight and blood pressure screening in the schools, studies done with tenth grade students in 2008/9 showed that 20 per cent of 14-year-olds were found to be overweight or obese, and 51 per cent of children between 13 and 15 had severely elevated blood pressure, which represented a four per cent increase within four years.
She went on: “In Jamaica, a 2007 survey showed that nearly one fifth of children between three and four years old were considered clinically obese, while a study in Trinidad revealed that 42.9 per cent of the children in preschool were overweight, while in the secondary schools, over 40 per cent were overweight, 11.6 per cent obese”.
Dr St. John expressed concern about some Barbadian cultural practices that may be contributing to the problem. “It concerns me when I hear complaints from parents like, “he/she is a picky eater”. Some parents force their children to eat all their food, sometimes with a belt or ruler on hand threatening to hit the child if he/she doesn’t eat it, or resort to ‘shoveling food down the child’s throat’.”
“They also don’t recognize the importance of giving the child enough time to digest a meal; for example, if a child had a snack an hour ago, don’t expect it to eat a full meal until much later. We saw one child who was four years old and was 50 pounds, because he was taking in a lot more calories than he should have been,” she said.
“The Heart and Stroke Foundation also has a fitness programme catering to children between the ages of eight and 18, and we have seen 13-year-olds there who weigh as much as 270 pounds,” Dr St John revealed.
Expanding on the above point, Dr St. John said attitudes towards exercise had also changed, and one of the recommendations coming out of the studies, which led to a national plan called the Barbados Childhood Obesity Prevention Programme (B-CHOPP) was a mandatory increase in the number of hours allocated to physical activity in the schools.
She noted that, “in some schools, children can opt out of Physical Education when choosing their subjects in third form, and parents use all kinds of excuses to prevent their children from playing games. A common one is asthma, but asthmatic children need exercise because it will help expand their lung capacity.”
Medical Officer in charge of Chronic Non-Communicable Diseases at the Ministry of Health, Dr Ingrid Cumberbatch, stated that while Barbados had introduced a ‘soda tax’ of 10 per cent, other countries had rates of 20 per cent or more which acted more as a deterrent.
In terms of “energy dense but nutrient poor” foods, which are often made attractive to children via advertising, Dr Cumberbatch said, “In countries like Mexico and Chile, products like Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes are sold with the picture of Tony the Tiger blocked out. Energy drinks and fruit juices are also not as ‘healthy’ as we think, as they are often high in sugar.”
In noting the high prevalence of obesity among women, Donna Barker from the Ministry of Health stated that the Ministry had started a “Get Women Moving” programme, which currently takes place at the Alexandra School in St. Peter, the Alleyne School in St. Andrew, Wanderers Cricket Club in Christ Church, the Pan American International Insurance Company building in Fontabelle, Bridgetown, and Queen’s Park, also in Bridgetown, where women get involved in physical exercise and other activities.
The overall goals of B-CHOPP include “reducing childhood obesity by five per cent by 2019, to have at least 70 schools across the island designated as Health Promoting Schools by 2019, and to increase breastfeeding up to six months by 20 per cent, since the earlier children are introduced to solid foods, the more likely they are to develop weight challenges as they grow older”, Dr Cumberbatch noted.