I recently was given the opportunity to be a Champion of the Childhood Obesity Prevention Campaign. It is an invitation I readily accepted, and I feel honoured to have been given the opportunity to serve in a cause that is becoming more critical to the Caribbean today.
I thank Dr Grace Showan, the Programme Coordinator for the Childhood Obesity Prevention Campaign, and the Heart and Stroke Foundation Inc., one of the advocates leading the fight in Barbados and the Caribbean against Childhood Obesity for this recognition.
They defined a Champion as “an influencer, whose passion and interest in health and wellness is synonymous with his/her lifestyle and ability to share with others…” Being Champion forced me to critically examine my own health and diet and to do much more reading and research on ways to prevent childhood obesity and turn back the tsunami (as it has been described) of non-communicable diseases endangering our Caribbean communities.
The Campaign has adopted a multi-faceted and a multi-sectoral approach as it strives to eliminate incidences of childhood obesity. It will be advocating for health driven school-based policies that will change the obesogenic environment in which our children are currently learning. It has also identified some direct targets in this fight. One is working towards the removal of sugar-sweetened beverages and unhealthy foods from the schools while highlighting the dangers of regular and continuous overuse of sugar.
One of the first steps in the campaign is gathering information via research. This is vital as this fight needs all the facts and figures it can get to inform key decision makers and the society at large on the critical need for changes in lifestyle as it relates to sugar consumption and other unhealthy foods and other associated actions.
The information given to me thus far and shared at last week’s Conference titled Childhood Obesity Prevention Campaign – Collaborative Opportunities & Counter Measures at the Lloyd Erskine Sandiford Centre is mind boggling. Consider the following facts:
– one in three children and teens age two to 19 are considered overweight or obese.
– two out of three children don’t get any physical activity.
– 96 per cent of elementary schools offer no physical education classes.
– 7 hours is the amount of time kids spend in front of the TV or computer screens daily.
– A World Health Organization Global School Health Survey performed in 2012 collecting data from 26 schools in Barbados showed that 70 per cent of the children have low levels of physical activity.
The Caribbean is not the only region facing this challenge. Worldwide statistics show the problem is global. The number of overweight or obese infants and young children (aged 0 to five years) increased from 32 million globally in 1990 to 41 million in 2016. The vast majority of overweight or obese children live in developing countries where the rate of increase has been more than 30 per cent higher than that of developed countries. If current trends continue, the number of overweight or obese infants and young children globally will increase to 70 million by 2025.
Dr Patrice Lawrence Williams of the Pan American Health Organization made an important observation at the Conference. She said that PAHO’s main concern in the 1960s for Caribbean children was malnourishment and within one to two generations there is now the double burden of some under-nourished children but also an increasing number who are obese.
She further pointed out that childhood obesity rates in the Caribbean have surpassed the global rate for the disease. In a decade, the obesity rate among children increased from six per cent to 14 per cent. On its current trajectory, by 2030, half of the region’s children will be overweight and / or obese. “PAHO proclaims childhood obesity is one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century.”
Researchers have noted that obese children are more likely to develop a variety of health problems as adults. These include cardiovascular disease among other ailments.
The contributors to obesity in infants and children have been identified. These include poor diets, lack of adequate amounts of physical activity, and feeding infants energy-dense, high fat, high sugar and high salt foods. The challenge is effecting a lifestyle change to such habits. A lack of information about sound approaches to nutrition and poor availability and affordability of healthy foods contribute to the problem. The aggressive marketing of energy-dense foods and beverages to children and families further exacerbate the problem. The increasingly urbanized and digitalized world offers fewer opportunities for physical activity through healthy play and being overweight further reduces children’s opportunities to participate in group physical activities.
The battle is on and it is one in which we must all play our part. I had to make a conscious decision to limit my intake of sugary drinks and to develop a taste for plain water. I am pleased that several schools have adopted a plan to increase water availability to students. The initiative to have ‘Water Wednesdays’ and ‘Fruit Fridays’ is one step towards making the wider public aware but also inculcating in young people the benefits of healthy lifestyle choices.
Overweight and obesity are largely preventable. Supportive policies, environments, schools and communities, including churches and other faith-based institutions are fundamental in shaping parents’ and children’s choices and can make the healthier choice of foods and regular physical activity the easiest one.
WHO recommends the following for infants and young children:
– early initiation of breastfeeding within one hour of birth.
– exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life; and
– the introduction of nutritionally adequate and safe complementary (solid) foods at six months together with breast feeding up to two years of age.
For school-aged children and adolescents it recommends:
– limit energy intake from total fats and sugars;
– increase consumption of fruit and vegetables, as well as legumes, whole grains and nuts;
– engage in regular physical activity (60 minutes a day).
The argument used against the above recommendations is the affordability of the healthy options. Both Government and suppliers must work together to try to reduce the costs. If fast food or sugary foods are the affordable options, then in an economically depressed situation like ours more persons will have no other choice. The point is worth making that in the past many persons may not have had the healthy options but their intense physical activity countered any potential damage from unhealthy diets as well as eating less.
The other argument is that unhealthy food products represent an industry offering employment and income for a wide cross section of the society. It will be difficult to change that without affecting the livelihood of thousands.
These are all issues that will have to be considered in our fight against the prevalence of childhood obesity. We cannot back away from the challenge as it would mean we are dooming our future generations to live a life full of health complications.
(Suleiman Bulbulia is a Justice of the Peace. Secretary of the Barbados Muslim Association and Muslim Chaplain at the Cave Hill Campus, UWI. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)