More than 900 primary school children are currently participating in an intervention programme aimed at combatting childhood obesity in Barbados.
The programme, mounted by the Ministry of Health in collaboration with the Barbados Drug Service and the Ministry of Education, features a series of interactive mini-lectures on the topic: Smart Eating – Children Making Healthy Food Choices.
The sessions, which are geared towards children aged 10 and 11, are educating them about the negative effects of unhealthy diets high in calories, sodium and fat; and the benefits to be gained by eating more fruits, vegetables, ground provisions and legumes, and drinking more water.
The Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) has warned that the region is in the midst of a childhood obesity epidemic. According to Dr. Audrey Morris, the advisor on food and nutrition at the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO), the number of obese and overweight children in the Caribbean has doubled in the last decade.
In Barbados, the Global School Health Survey revealed that 31.9 per cent of students were overweight and 14.4 per cent obese. The study found that 18.5 per cent of students surveyed consumed fast food three or more days per week and 73.3 per cent drank one or more carbonated beverages every day.
Only 12.7 per cent reported eating five or more servings of fruit and vegetables per day over a 30-day period, and 15 per cent reported eating no fruit or vegetables during the same period.
Additionally, while the recommended amount of exercise for children was at least 60 minutes a day, the survey found that only 28 per cent of Barbadian children met that criteria, with more than 70 per cent considered physically inactive. It further found that students engaged in at least three hours of sedentary activity each day centred around electronic media, television and video games.
Acting Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Kenneth George, at a recent public lecture, described childhood obesity as “a worrisome public health development”. He pointed to the link between childhood obesity and the increased risk of non-communicable diseases such as Type 2 diabetes, elevated blood pressure, early atherosclerosis and asthma.
Other areas of concern, he said, included psychological and psychosocial problems, joint and bone disease, sleep apnea, endocrine disorders and even some cancers. Dr. George maintained that obese children were more likely to be ill and have increased sick days from school; and they were also at higher risk of becoming obese adults.
One of the challenges of the Ministry of Health, therefore, he said, was to reverse the increased consumption of foods prepared outside the home which were often highly refined and processed; and to increase the consumption of traditional and locally sourced foods.
The Ministry was further challenged, he said, by the limited enforcement of the policy of physical education in schools where students frequently “opted out”, and where time allotted for physical education had been reduced, in many cases, to one session per week, particularly during the “exam term”.
Physical education, he maintained, was a very important part of the school curriculum and must be enforced in all primary and secondary schools. The Acting Chief Medical Officer stressed the importance of engaging all stakeholders to provide solutions to the public health challenge of childhood obesity.
“This calls for the involvement of children through focus groups and other fora. It must involve Parent Teacher Associations, school boards and the Ministry of Education. We must collaborate with the Schools Meals Programme, canteen and cafeteria operators and itinerant vendors,” he submitted.
Dr. George further recommended the formation of strategic alliances with farmers, manufacturers and the fast food industry, as well as with international organisations such as PAHO, the Food and Agricultural Organisation, United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund, and the United Nations Population Fund.
The current initiative targeted at primary school students island wide is one step in the Ministry of Health’s mission to make all schools in Barbados “health promoting schools” by the year 2020.