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Worrying statistics on obesity in TT youths

By VERDEL BISHOP Tuesday, June 7 2011

click on pic to zoom in
Encourage kids to eat healthy...
Encourage kids to eat healthy...

The rise in overweight and obesity worldwide is a major public health challenge. People of all ages and backgrounds face this form of malnutrition. As a consequence, rates of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other diet-related conditions are escalating worldwide. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) 2010 figures, about 43 million children under age five are overweight. Overweight and obesity are defined as abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that may impair health.

Recent Newsday reports show that according to the Health Report Card 2011, obesity in youths is a troubling concern. Specifically, according to research done in 2009/2011 by the Caribbean Food and Nutrition Institute had shown that some 23 percent of primary school children in Trinidad and Tobago were overweight/obese, 25 percent of students at secondary school were overweight/obese, while 14 percent of the children in secondary schools had been underweight. In the last ten years in this country, obesity levels have tripled.

These worrying statistics were made available by Minister of Health, Therese Baptiste-Cornelis, at the recent launch of the Health Status Report Card 2011 on mortality rates from accidents, violence and suicides for varying periods from 1999. In addition to statistics on mental health, alcohol abuse by minors and obesity among young people were cause for concern.

Dietician June Holdip noted that childhood obesity is one form of malnutrition that can be detrimental to physical and mental health. Physiologically, this condition, according to Holdip, if allowed to go unchecked and become chronic, can put children at risk for the development of diseases and conditions including type 2 diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, shortness of breath, irregular menstrual cycles, asthma and other respiratory problems, sleep disorders, liver disease, early puberty, eating disorders, skin infections, as well as and emotional problems since they are not be able to participate or may not be selected to participate in all activities like their peers. Additionally they may be subjected to low self esteem and bullying behaviour and learning problems and depression. She said parents and caretakers deserve real solutions aimed at drastic reduction in obesity risk.

Holdip strongly advises parents and caretakers to form a lobby group within the Parent Teachers Association (PTA )and have discussions with the principal, teachers and cafeteria or tuck shop owner about having healthier choice items for the children at school.

The dietician said the best approach for treating obesity in children is a family approach that includes eating more of the healthier foods, less of the unhealthier foods, and increasing physical activity.

Parents often complain that their children won’t eat healthy food. Most children won’t eat healthy food because, according to Holdip, processed food is available and frequently offered. She said an increase in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and other whole foods should replace processed foods in a child’s diet.

Holdip noted, “To a large extent, success depends on how much you are committed to helping your child make important changes. In most instances, parents buy the food, cook the food and decide when and where the food is eaten. Remember that small lifestyle changes can make a big difference in your child’s health as well as yours and the rest of the family,” Holdip said. Holdip said there are various ways that parents can encourage healthy eating habits in children. She offered solutions like offering more home-cooked meals to take to school to reduce the frequency of having to buy high fat foods. “Give children less pocket money on school days and include packed lunches more often and encourage them to eat these,” she said

Although Holdip also advises making meal times a family affair by including children in the meal planning tasks and eating and preparing more meals at home as appose to eating out, she was ready to admit that eating at home as a family does not address what is being served if a family enjoys high fat meals.

“Reduce the amount and frequency of high fat and high sugar-containing foods such as heavily sweetened fruit drinks and other beverages. Encourage children to say “no” to the extra or too much cheese, gravy and sauces. Encourage moderate consumption of fresh fruits, especially those that are in season. Include cooked and/or raw vegetables more often and make sure that they are attractive, tasty and appetising and add fresh or dried seasonings, herbs or spices instead of fat to enhance flavour.

Holdip agrees that parents need very specific guidelines of what constitutes a healthy diet for their children to help them navigate grocery store shelves. She said:

“Learn as much as you could about food, nutrition and healthy eating and how you can mix, match and balance your choices from the Caribbean Six Food Groups: staples, legumes and nuts, fruits, vegetables, foods from animals and fats and oils.

“Participate as often as possible in physical activity and exercise as a family to help encourage each other and get greater benefit from your healthy food choices and eating behaviours,” Holdip said

The Education Ministry has taken a proactive approach towards the growing problem of obesity in schoolchildren and has directed the newly-appointed Board of the National Schools Dietary Services (NSDS) to ensure healthy and nutritious food is served to the nation’s schoolchildren in the school feeding programme. The Ministry in its quest to eliminate obesity among schoolchildren is targeting cafeterias at the nation’s schools to have healthy foods and reduce soft drink consumption. Education Minister Dr Tim Gopeesingh said as a doctor and educator for many years, one of his “dreams is to ensure we eradicate almost completely obesity in schoolchildren and make students well nourished and physically fit.” He said obesity was a significant contributor to “decreased performance” at schools. “A child who is obese maximises the fullest potential to about 70 percent of where they can really go and of course sporting facilities become less for children who are obese.”

Chairman of the NSDS Dawn Annamunthodo said the board would be focusing on promoting healthy eating and lifestyles, “and encouraging more fresh fruit and vegetables and whole grains in the diet.”

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