Time to tackle child obesity

By Joseph O’Neil


“Child obesity at epidemic levels”, “Child Obesity rate in T & T alarming”, “T & T children too fat”, these are just some of the headlines that appeared on every major newspaper in the country on Monday 03rd February, 2014. The headlines were so riveting that in minutes the commentary by citizens on social media sites numbered in the hundreds. This response by citizens is a testament that this issue is of immense concern to all of us. Dr. Anjanie Sharma who spoke on behalf of the Minister of Health, Dr. Fuad Khan stated “Studies carried out by the Caribbean Food and Nutrition Institute and the T&T Olympic Committee have confirmed overweight and obesity throughout the island... this has been validated by local studies, such as that carried out by the University of the West Indies (UWI) on overweight schoolchildren in Trinidad, which showed a high risk of developing diabetes in the one to 17 age group.” Sharma further stressed that the figures are worse than those in the United States. For instance, in South Trinidad one in every three children is overweight. Beyond the high risk of these children becoming hypertensive, asthmatic, diabetic or dealing with sleep apnea this information is of societal concern because it poses a threat to the health and overall welfare of the upcoming generations of this country.
To anyone who is observant of their society this revelation should not come as “news”. From the school feeding programme, both breakfast and lunch, to the snacks that are packed in children’s lunch kits, to the beverages that are sold in the school canteens, these are all contributors to this epidemic. Children are surrounded by and offered an extensive amount of high-calorie but low-nutrition foods. It is for this reason that dealing with obesity is a partnership between the government, the family and the individuals themselves.
One can argue that obesity is the effect, but a lack of nutritional education is the cause. Could it be that parents are unaware of portion control or nutritionally balancing meals? For instance, it is quite common for locals to cook multiple carbs in one meal, rice, macaroni pie, provisions, noodles and potato or pasta salad. However, small changes to our diets such as preparing more vegetables and beans can make a significant difference. It is critical to note that this is easier said than done, when last have you noticed the price for one pound of tomatoes? or the price whole grain flour, rice or for macaroni? The reality is that in most instances it is beyond the individual’s income to eat healthy. Yes it is being recommended by the Minister of Health that parents should adopt healthy cooking habits to instil the importance of a balanced diet in their children that would lead into adulthood, however, one must ask, do parents have the means to sustain such a diet? Ironically, this minister along with the government, Christmas gift to the nation was reducing the price of white flour, white rice and oil, none of which would aid in facilitating this movement for healthy eating.
Thankfully, the minister recognises the short comings in the system and has pledged to work in partnership with the Ministry of Education with the hope of changing the meals offered to students under the school feeding programme. However, changes in diet cannot be divorced from the need to engage youths in more physical activity. No longer is lunch time used for playing cricket, football or skipping, students are now occupied in playing phone games, checking their notifications on Facebook, chatting on BBM, updating their status or taking “selfies” ( a type of self-portrait taken with a digital camera or camera phone that is often shared on social media websites).
It is recommended that throughout our lives, human beings need at least one hour of moderate to vigorous physical activity daily. Apart for Physical Education (PE) at school, parents have an active role to play in ensuring their children have an active lifestyle. This may involve, playing with them and making physical activity fun, enrolling them in sporting activities, praising their efforts and not using exercise as punishment.
From any angle having childhood obesity statistics that rivals the United States is a devastating portrayal of our society. In treating this situation, it is crucial to note that this is a collaborative effort which requires the commitment of the family unit, the school feeding programme, the canteens and the individuals themselves. We need to fight this especially because diabetes is one of the leading causes of death in this country. We cannot afford to add any further strain to the health services in dealing with obesity and diabetes, which is already an overwhelming challenge to our health care providers. We all need to be proactive and committed to this movement. Your health is your wealth.

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Carigone said on Friday, Feb 21 at 10:14 PM

Very interesting letter and comments. Don't think people will take on this issue. In the Caribbean we only get serious about health issues when WE get sick.

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Trevor Salisbury said on Thursday, Feb 20 at 9:21 AM

Schools should have a Wellness Day on their calendar of events.

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Ingram said on Friday, Feb 14 at 3:29 PM

Some measures should be taken to reduce and possibly eliminate sugary drinks from school canteens.

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Zion Hill said on Tuesday, Feb 11 at 8:56 AM

Since the Opinion mentioned School Feeding and also beverages sold in school canteens, I am asking that School Feeding stop serving children juice drinks with artificial colouring. School canteens should stop selling sugary drinks.

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Wanting to be healthy said on Monday, Feb 10 at 7:11 PM

This author has highlighted the gravity of the situation. Many approaches are needed. The Divisions of Education and Health can call a meeting with principals and teachers to outline the problem and discuss what could be done about childhood obesity.The children should be saved from some of the lifestyle mistakes that many of us adults made.

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PRO said on Monday, Feb 10 at 10:10 AM

One suggestion to consider is PE in all classes- even in SEA class and forms 5&6.

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Forecaster said on Sunday, Feb 9 at 6:16 PM

The time has come for everyone to recognise that your health is your wealth. The society needs to be inspired to make healthy living a priority. The sports clubs, the coaches in the schools, and even the churches could all become involved in promoting the slogan "Your health is your wealth" and conduct activities to foster awareness of healthy living.

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Savita said on Sunday, Feb 9 at 5:15 PM

I like your the points in your letter. You approached the matter in a comprehensive way. I think the education authorities should take the initiative and work with the health officials to come up proper guidelines for school cafeterias. In addition perhaps the Tobago PTA could become more involved in parent education including providing some speakers to do nutrition talks at some PTA meetings.

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