Caribbean health experts agreed Wednesday that the same urgency applied to fighting the COVID-19 pandemic should also be devoted to addressing childhood obesity.
The consensus was reached during a virtual panel discussion conducted by the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Barbados as it launched its Act Now campaign to end childhood obesity.
Foundation Chairman Dr Kenneth Connell said: “Our governments moved quickly to address COVID-19, but this is a matter we have been discussing for a long time, and the time is now to take decisive action on it.
“People have the power to change governments if they are not happy with what they are doing, so if we care about our children’s health but governments do not seem to be acting on our concerns, we will not vote for them again.
“The same way we have the COVID-19 Monitoring Unit making sure that people stick to the protocols associated with managing the pandemic, we must do the same when it comes to enforcing nutritional policies.”
Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) representative Dr Patrice Lawrence-Williams said anecdotal evidence showed that there was a likely increase in children gaining weight during the lockdown periods countries implemented as they dealt with COVID-19 .
She said: “With the switch to online learning, children put on weight as they snacked more often, they were spending time in front of the computer instead of running around outside playing owing to the curfews and other restrictions, and owing to the unemployment situation, parents might not have been able to afford healthier food items.”
UNICEF communications expert Dr Lisa McClean-Trotman said the issue of childhood obesity went beyond the obvious susceptibility to chronic non-communicable diseases and also had mental health implications.
She said: “Research done between 2017 and 2019 showed that obese children had a ten per cent greater chance of becoming depressed and tended to be bullied more, and a 2020 study conducted among 12 year old girls said the same.
“Obesity leads to stigmatization, which can lead to violence, whether online through cyber-bullying or physical.”
Dr Lawrence-Williams noted that some countries had introduced school nutrition policies, including Jamaica, Grenada and St. Kitts.
The PAHO representative noted the Healthy Plate Project in St Kitts had “looked at portion sizes as well as content in terms of the food groups and they found ways to engage all stakeholders within the community, as they incorporated a farm to fork project the Ministry of Agriculture had embarked on into it, so the project emphasises locally grown food items”.
The Principal of the Gordon Walters Primary School Tyrone Marshall said he implemented a healthy eating programme owing to his personal concerns about some of the food items he saw his students consuming.
Marshall said: “I realised we were impeding our children’s growth and development through the sugary drinks and the dyed snacks. The Muslim Association gave the school a water cooler and parents and other people started making healthy drinks using fruit and vegetables to sell instead of the carbonated ones, and we monitor the sugar content of those drinks.”
One of his teachers, Sherry Ann Murray, said Gordon Walters was currently working with the Regional Entrepreneurship in Agriculture Programme (REAP) to provide the school with seeds for medicinal and culinary herbs and vegetables. By selling these seeds, the school will be able to offset the cost of selling healthy snacks at the school, she said.