The number of overweight and obese children in the region has more than doubled over the last decade.

Speaking at a workshop held at the Ministry of Health last Monday, Advisor on Food and Nutrition at the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), Dr. Audrey Morris, disclosed that according to a study done in four Caribbean countries, 30 per cent of children aged 11 to 13 were overweight or obese, conditions primarily blamed on unhealthy diets and inadequate exercise.

While Barbados was not included in the PAHO study, statistics provided by Senior Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Kenneth George, revealed that the situation was very similar here. According to him, the most recent survey conducted in 2012 and involving 1,600 secondary school students, revealed that 31.9 per cent of students aged 13 to 15 were overweight, and 14.4 per cent obese.

Dr. George stated: ???These are frightening statistics because there is a higher propensity for the obese child to become an obese adult, with all the associated chronic diseases.??? The standard Body Mass Index (BMI) for overweight is between 25 and 30 and for obesity between 30 and 40.

Dr. Morris and Dr. George were participants at a workshop to review and refine a draft policy document on Nutritious and Healthy Foods in Barbadian Schools, hosted by the Ministry in collaboration with PAHO. It brought together primary and secondary school teachers, and officers of the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Education, the School Meals Department and the National Nutrition Centre.

Dr. George suggested that the School Meals Programme in the primary system, which provided the most substantial meal some children had daily, was an excellent platform for introducing positive dietary habits. He noted that enhancing the nutritional content of these meals could be a first step in the process.

He also stressed the importance of teachers setting an example for the children around them by also eating healthily and exercising regularly.??Another critical step, he said, was compulsory physical education in schools.

He noted that while physical education was fairly well entrenched in the primary school system, there was a need to improve the programme in secondary schools, so that children were not allowed to opt out of participating.

Dr. Morris said the consequences of overweight and obesity in children were serious, including breathing difficulties, hypertension, early signs of cardiovascular disease, insulin resistance and psychological effects.??She noted the easy access to fatty and salty foods in school canteens and revealed that up to 80 per cent of the children in the Caribbean study admitted to drinking a carbonated soda every day.

This, she said, was coupled with the ease with which children were allowed to opt out of physical education classes at school, especially when preparing for examinations, and the large amount of time they were allowed to spend watching television and playing computer games at home.

Dr. Morris pointed to some of the measures taken by other countries, including the United States, which have placed limits on sugar, fat and sodium in all foods and beverages sold on school compounds. In addition, Brazil has mandated that 30 per cent of the input in school meals must come from local agriculture, and Panama has banned fried foods and sodas from school premises.

What was needed in the Caribbean, she said, was a multi-faceted, multi-sectoral approach to reinforce the message of healthier eating and active living.

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