“We’re eating ourselves to death, and we’re expecting different results.”
That is the analysis of food consumption practices in Barbados by veteran medical care professional Dr Anne St John as she briefly spoke of non-communicable diseases becoming the number one health problem here owing to over indulgence while we’re wringing our hands at the problem.
“Looking at the epidemic of childhood obesity in Barbados… our population is doing the same thing over and over again,” she said Tuesday, while delivering a Legacy Lecture marking her retirement after more than four decades in medical service. She invoked the often-quoted description of insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” adding that this ages-old definition applies to the people of Barbados today.
Having practised paediatric medicine for the past 42 years with 38 of these dedicated to working in the care of children in the Department of Paediatrics at QEH, Dr John should know of the madness in the eating habits of Barbadians. Speaking in the Henry Fraser Lecture, she reflected on a 20ten study done along with nutritionist Dr Pamela Gaskin. They had scientifically selected 400 nine to ten-year-olds from different schools.
“We found 15 per cent prevalence of elevated blood pressure, and 33 per cent of overweight and obesity among these children,” she said. When a country has a significant proportion of its nine- and ten-year-olds suffering blood pressure there should be alarm bells ringing across the land. But herein lies the insanity because most children are still being fed the low-nourishment, high-fat, sweet foods and drinks.
“If we start children on the wrong kind of nutrition and little activity, they’re not going to get any better. In fact, they get more sedentary as they get older,” she advised.
She spoke of a 2015 task force for the National Plan of Action for Obesity Prevention and Control and a National Plan for Childhood Obesity led by Professor Trevor Hassell, who worked with others in developing a strategy to fight childhood obesity in Barbados.
Another non-governmental organization involved is the Healthy Caribbean Coalition, also headed by Professor Hassell. Among the priority areas is pressuring the authorities to increase programmes on nutrition literacy; early childhood nutrition; and the marketing of healthy foods and beverages to children.
“We are just at the point of the ten per cent sweet drink tax. We started this initiative in 2015,” she said and recalled the controversy surrounding this tax.
But the paediatrician who has seen the negative effects of obesity in many Barbadian children said, “many of us feel the ten per cent is just a tap on the wrist, it should have been 40 per cent for the sugar-sweetened beverages because it is the only way to effect [change]”.
Dr St John pointed to reduced smoking owing to high tobacco taxes as an example of how the sugar sweetened tax could work.
“Drink water, and that [applies] for all ages. Have water. Leave out the Plus, the Malt, the Powerade,” she said, adding, “I’m not against any company but 800 calories in two servings [of drinks] is just a lot”.
Dr St John’s call for a jacked up sugar-sweetened drinks tax is not new as a number of her colleagues have been making similar calls. Retired Dean of the Faculty of Medical Sciences, Cave Hill Campus, Dr Henry Fraser had said that ten per cent cannot make a difference in Barbadians choosing whether to buy a sweet drink.
“It must be significant to make a difference. Ten per cent increases are just taken in stride every day,” he said, arguing that the levy “has failed because it’s hardly noticed. Barbadians are accustomed to these kinds of increases. Like gasoline, every time you go to the pump, it’s ten per cent up. It’s got to go up, it must be at least 30 per cent or more.”
Further support for a higher tax on these drinks has come from Director of the George Alleyne Chronic Disease Research Centre, Dr Alafia Samuel. While supporting the tax hike, she cautioned that the traditional fruit drinks made at home also present the same danger.
“Just remember fruit drinks sometimes have just as much sugar as soda… You can dissolve a lot of sugar in a small amount of liquid, and we certainly do that in the drinks that we have,” she said.
Stressing that the health impact from sugar-sweetened beverages goes far she said, “in addition to the overweight and obesity, there is a particular problem of dental caries (tooth decay) and cavities because the sugar rests in your mouth and therefore produces a lot of cavities.” Further she said, “one sugar-sweetened beverage per day increases your diabetes risk by 18 per cent”.
When one considers that Barbados has a near 20 per cent rate of diabetes, it is no wonder that Dr St John is lamenting the national insanity of maintaining children on sugary diets of which sugar-sweetened drinks play a large part as Bajans eat themselves to death.