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The Bahamian diet must change

Minister of Health Dr. Duane Sands.

Minister of Health Dr. Duane Sands laid out sobering statistics in the House of Assembly on Wednesday – data he has presented to the public before. We are the sixth most overweight or obese people in the world; The Bahamas has the worst non-communicable diseases profile in the Americas; we have an incidence of diabetes and hypertension so severe that our age-adjusted death rate in 2014 ranked The Bahamas seventh in the world in deaths from hypertension.

Maneuvering through our communities, you see the problem. Fat people are everywhere.

The problem has two parts: we have a poor diet and do not exercise enough. We eat high starch meals. We drink sugary beverages. We eat too much salty processed meat.

Our culturally poor eating habits have been accentuated by the rise of fast food consumption. Low nutrition, high salt, high calorie food fried in artery clogging trans fats are eaten every day by many Bahamians.

The government has been reviewing the price control regime that is part of the national breadbasket. This law came into effect 1971. The idea was to limit markups on certain foods to ensure people could afford to eat.

We will skip the debate over whether price controls should exist. They do, and they are going nowhere. The debate at hand regards what items should be on the list.

The government report cited at the town hall meeting conducted by the Ministry of Health states that, “The current breadbasket items for price control contribute to a high-energy, dense diet of fat, saturated fat intake (mostly from animal sources), and added sugar, reduced intakes of complex carbohydrates and dietary fiber, and reduced fruit and vegetable intake.”

It concluded that there is an “urgent need” to revise the 1971 breadbasket to include food that aligns with recommendations of the national dietary guidelines; is low in sugar, fat and sodium; reflects foods that are high in fiber, ensures variety and diversity; is a good source of micronutrients and is minimally processed.

The report further notes that the government should “simultaneously pursue a consumption tax on the fast food industry, as they are likely benefactors from the reduced prices of items on price control”.

The current breadbasket includes: butter, margarine, cooking oil, mayonnaise, mustard, corned beef, canned meats, canned soups, broths, evaporated milk, condensed milk, fresh milk, cheese, eggs, rice, flour, grits, sugar, baby cereal, baby formula, baby food and bread.

The report recommends the removal of margarine, mayonnaise, corned beef, canned meats, canned soups, broths, condensed milk and sugar.

These items would be replaced with beans and peas, raw almonds, raw cashews, fresh oranges, fresh apples, root crops (such as sweet potato, pumpkin, cassava etc.), oatmeal, tuna (in water), sardines (in water) and mackerel (in water).

It also specifies the types of milk, flour and bread that should be included in the breadbasket.

The government is moving in the right direction by trying to disincentivize consumption of foods that contribute to our health crisis. If bad food is cheap, people will buy it and eat it. The more expensive it is, the more consumption declines.

There could be further refinement of the new breadbasket list. Protections could be removed from all processed meats, for example, as preservatives used in many of these are linked to bowel cancer.

The government should also be more aggressive in the regulation of what is sold to children at schools. School vendors notoriously sell processed meats and fried, salty, sugary foods to children. School should be a place where young people are offered healthy options. That would help create good eating habits in the next generation.

Sands is a heart surgeon. He has seen the effects of our unhealthy lifestyle. He should not be deterred by those who do not see that what we eat is killing us.

Right-thinking Bahamians support Sands trying to change the status quo. We encourage those who have other ideas as to how policy could steer us to better eating habits to offer them. A national effort is needed to persuade Bahamians to change. Our current eating habits contribute to premature death and high health costs.

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