Obese nation

Professor says more Jamaicans overweight; life-threatening condition fuelling NCDs

BY KIMBERLEY HIBBERT Observer staff reporter hibbertk@jamaicaobserver.com

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

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More Jamaicans are obese today than 15 years ago.

In fact, according to University of Technology, Jamaica Professor of Public Health and Nutrition Fitzroy Henry, obesity rates among adults have increased by one per cent, each year, since 2002.

The burgeoning issue took centre stage at yesterday’s launch of the Ministry of Health’s National Food Industry Task Force (NFITF), which is tasked with formulating strategies to improve Jamaicans’ diet and lessen the economic burden of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs). The ministry currently spends more than $170 million per year to treat NCDs.

According to Professor Henry, who chairs the NFITF, locally, obesity rates among adults moved from 45 per cent in 2002 to 54 per cent in 2008, and 60 per cent in 2016.

The professor said the figures should not be dismissed as merely statistics because they represent real people and real implications for public health, which includes a population that is at increased risk for cardiovascular diseases such as diabetes and hypertension.

The health ministry is therefore on a mission — of which the launch of the food industry task force is the first step — to implement programmes to curtail the effects of obesity and chronic diseases now plaguing society.

While data from the ministry indicate that two out of every three deaths locally are as a result of NCDs, Henry said being overweight is the main underlying cause of death in Jamaica due to fat consumption and daily intake of large quantities of sugar.

"The main causes of death in Jamaica include heart disease, hypertension, cancer, diabetes, stroke, which are all related to obesity. When we look at the Caribbean figures, obesity is increasing exponentially. It is females more than males, but the males are catching up fast," the professor said.

"The daily target for sugar per day in children is about 25 grams or five teaspoons. For adults, it’s about 50 grams, which is about 10 teaspoons," he continued.

Henry said the global figures show Jamaica, Kuwait and Barbados topping the list of children between 13 and 15 years old who consume more than one bottle of soda daily.

"Seventy-five per cent of boys between the ages of 13 and 15 drink more than one soda per day, on average, according to the Global School-based Student Health Survey in 2010. The girls in Jamaica are ranked third, only beaten by Kuwait and Barbados. We have serious problems. Twenty-seven per cent of boys and 33 per cent of girls are overweight, and when we look at it in the global picture, girls over 15 years have the highest rate of obesity," he continued.

But, though the 18-member task force is expected to look at product reformulation — where manufacturers pledge to reduce the amount of salt, sugar, as well as saturated and trans fat in products — and food labelling to help Jamaicans choose healthy diets, among other things, it comes more than 10 years after it was conceived in 2002 by Dr Deanna Ashley, the first director of health promotion and protection in the health ministry.

Could this delay be a factor in the current NCD crisis?

Health Minister Dr Christopher Tufton told the Jamaica Observer that he is not casting blame, because NCDs are a result of personal lifestyle choices. Having recognised the impact it is having on society, the minister said the Government is now doing something about it.

At least three other Caribbean countries have gone ahead of Jamaica to tackle these very issues. Earlier this year, Trinidad banned the sale of soft drinks in schools and Dominica and Barbados implemented a tax on sugar products last year.

While criticisms of public health lean towards infrastructure, Dr Tufton also said that it is now time to become more vocal on the preventative side of public health.

"Unhealthy diet was the leading risk factor of the adult disease burden in Jamaica in 2010. Healthy lifestyle practices, including healthy dietary behaviours, could prevent as much as 80 per cent of the global burden of NCDs. The 2014 Global Status Report on NCDs states that 56 per cent of adults were estimated as being overweight and obese, with 25 per cent being classified as obese, 23 per cent had high blood pressure, and 10 per cent had high fasting blood glucose levels.

"To compound the issue, 28 per cent of adults were considered to be engaging in insufficient physical activity. What we eat, how much we eat, and how it is prepared are all issues of concern which must be addressed," he said.

Dr Tufton said the solution is not to close businesses but improve nutritional value of foods, encourage better consumption habits and an active lifestyle through a multi-sectoral approach, which includes the agriculture trade, food industry, civil society, education, and health.

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