The dreaded COVID-19 pandemic is not only creating a headache for businesses, but health officials are also raising an alarm that it has been resulting in weight gain for a wide cross section of the Caribbean population.
In fact, with no indication as to when the pandemic would end, President of the Healthy Caribbean Coalition (HCC) Professor Sir Trevor Hassell suggested that the pandemic could result in an increase in deaths associated with non-communicable diseases (NCDs) if urgent steps are not taken to reverse the trend.
“The reality is that the pandemic is likely to exacerbate an already urgent situation in the Caribbean region where one in three children is obese or overweight and up to two-thirds of adults are overweight or obese,” he said.
Sir Trevor was addressing the opening of a recent virtual roundtable discussion on the topic Weighing the impact of COVID-19: Nutrition, Overweight, Obesity and NCDs.
He said the pandemic had raised fundamental NCD concerns, adding that protracted periods of lockdown had resulted in disruption of services for prevention and treatment of NCDs.
Adding that there were challenges with being physically active during the lockdown period, Sir Trevor said there was also a possible increase in mental health issues, as well as a surge in the influence of unhealthy food.
“These are all expected to contribute long-term to an upsurge of deaths from NCDs,” he said.
During the discussion, Clinical Nutritionist Suzanne Soares-Wynter agreed that the pandemic had impacted on diet and had implications for the short and long-term, while pointing out that there was growing evidence that being obese created greater risks and complications for COVID-19.
At the same time, the Jamaica-based nutritionist said there was also evidence that during the height of the pandemic some people made a more conscious decision to consume more healthy foods.
However, she said the more common features were associated with unhealthy choices including increased alcohol use, stocking up on unhealthy food and emotional eating.
Soares-Wynter also indicated that with “outdated” national health and nutritional policies it may have actually been difficult to engage “appropriate control mechanisms”.
She argued that the pandemic had created an increase in unhealthy food marketing and donation, leading to a reliance on “low quality” products.
According to her while the donation of food items from some companies may appear charitable and provide a quick stop-gap for vulnerable groups especially children, this is really “a threat to food security and have implications for obesity and sickness later on in life” based on the type of foods that were being provided.
“What this therefore means is that prior to the pandemic many of us were already in a pandemic and at a high risk of COVID-19 . . . So while it may have brought some improvement to the agriculture industry it really has brought a reliance on non-perishable packaged foods and so it is important to understand some of the choices we have as consumers,” Soares-Wynter said.
She also noted that based on an examination of over 6,000 pre-packaged food products it was found that most of them were “ultra-processed” while the demand was highest for beverages, candies and desserts, sauces and spreads, snack foods and spices and seasonings.
“I also want to mention that a good 12 per cent had erroneous labels,” she added.
“Because COVID-19 may be around for a while longer we really have to think about a health-focused environment and striking a comprehensive balance, having a more nutritious plant-based diet, limiting the ultra-processed foods and beverages and becoming more active,” she recommended.
The officials also urged parents to allow their children to help them prepare healthy meals, and they called for better facilitation from regional leaders by way of implementing policies that encourage lifestyle changes, and find ways to make healthier options more affordable while encouraging improvement in labelling and packaging.
Consultant paediatrician Professor Anne St John pointed out that a study by the HCC prior to COVID-19, showed that about 15 per cent of Barbadian students had no vegetables in their diet, 73.3 per cent reported drinking one or more carbonated drink per day, and 18.5 per cent ate fast food more than three times a week.
A recent international study during the pandemic, she said, showed that children ate an extra meal per day, slept an extra half an hour per day during and added nearly five hours per day being in front of a phone, telephone and computer.
“They dramatically increase consumption of red meat, sugary drinks and junk food and the amount of vegetables consumed remained unchanged,” said St John, who added that internationally, physical activity also decreased by more than two hours per week during the pandemic.
“In our setting, anecdotally, I would consider that our vegetable consumption – probably based on a baseline pattern of observation – the vegetable consumption also decreased. So there was definite increases in weight during the COVID-19 pandemic,” she added.
Family physician and motivational speaker Dr Tanya Beaubrun said the time for action was now.
She pointed out that stress was one of the big contributing factors impacting health during the pandemic.
“Everybody has been impacted by COVID-19 and has had some element of stress,” said Beaubrun.
She said that some patients gained between 20 and 25 pounds over the last four months and recommended that individuals aim for physical activity for at least 30 minutes daily.
“We need to prioritize sleep and stress management with healthy coping mechanisms – meditation, prayer, time in nature and really connecting with our loved ones,” she said, while also advising individuals against the use of white sugar, processed food and artificial ingredients.