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The scourge of obesity

Claiming more lives than violent crime in The Bahamas are chronic illnesses brought about by obesity; a public health emergency that will require intense national focus, sustained education and a commitment to healthier lifestyles.

Over $300 million is allocated for public healthcare this budget year, with a large portion of that sum going to the treatment of lifestyle related conditions such as obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, kidney disease and cancer.

The statistics are startling.

In his contribution to the 2019/2020 budget debate, Health Minister Dr. Duane Sands revealed that 49.2 percent of Bahamians were obese in contrast to global statistics that put 13 percent of the world’s population as obese in 2016.

“Obese persons are about 20 percent more likely to die from cardiovascular disease,” he said. “All other things being equal, obese persons have a higher chance of getting cancer (endometrial, breast, colon, kidney, gallbladder and liver), type 2 diabetes, renal failure and stroke.”

Sands indicated that lifestyle related issues of diet, lack of exercise and habits such as smoking have created a scenario where Bahamians are on average “sicker than most, require more health care services than most, die prematurely as compared to most, and have health care costs that are more expensive.”

Bahamians are eating themselves to death.

But eating too much is only part of the story, as 90 percent of Bahamians eat insufficient amounts of fruits and vegetables and 72.6 percent have adopted a sedentary lifestyle, which means most Bahamians are not getting the right amount of nutrients and the right amount of physical activity to support health and wellness.

Unhealthy eating habits are learned at the earliest of ages, where well-meaning parents pressure children to eat beyond the point of their being full, hindering children from recognizing their own fullness cues and leading to over-eating later in life.

The easy accessibility and affordability of processed foods and sugary drinks that are big on calories but low in nutrients play a key role in the development of childhood obesity, a matter the World Health Organization (WHO) calls one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century.

According to the WHO, childhood obesity is associated with a higher chance of premature death and disability in adulthood, with overweight and obese children being more likely to stay obese into adulthood and develop noncommunicable diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular diseases at a younger age.

Obese children and adolescents suffer from both short-term and long-term health consequences, which is why urgent steps must be taken to address this pressing issue.

The Ministry of Health’s 2013 Bahamas Global Student Health Survey (GSHS) revealed that for students 13 to 15 years old, 44.7 percent were overweight and 21 percent were obese. Sixty-nine percent of students surveyed said they drank carbonated soft drinks one or more times a day over a 30-day period.

Over 50 percent of students (55.5 percent) spent three or more hours a day doing sedentary activities like sitting. Only 20.5 percent went to physical education class three or more days a week and just 15.9 percent of students surveyed were physically active for at least 60 minutes per day over a seven day period.

The ministry will repeat its GSHS in early 2020.

Last week, Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis foreshadowed a focus on the part of the government to address the problem of childhood and adolescent obesity in The Bahamas, with Dr. Sands indicating a plan on the part of his ministry to prohibit the sale of sugary drinks at its institutions throughout the country.

It is a positive step in what the health minister pledges will be a sustained campaign to tackle the scourge of obesity and chronic illnesses.

We urge the relevant authorities to provide stronger regulatory oversight of school lunch vendors contracted by the government, to ensure that vendors are adhering to the government’s ban on the sale of sugary drinks at public schools.

And we encourage Bahamians to make a personal commitment to educating oneself on how to live a healthier lifestyle and to act on that information so as to improve the quality of life of our loved ones and ourselves.

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