Childhood Obesity is a Majorly Overlooked Problem
There has never been a more appropriate time for urgent attention to be paid to preventing childhood obesity, not only in developed countries like Canada, the UK and the US, but also in less-developed countries like Antigua and Barbuda (A&B) where “one in four children is overweight or obese”, according to the Healthy Caribbean Coalition (HCC).
A report from the UK government’s National Child Measurement Programme late last year revealed that childhood obesity rates have increased substantially over the past year – the largest single-year increase since the programme started 15 years ago, according to the Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology journal.
As it pertains to the twin islands of A&B, the Caribbean Island Urinary Iodine Survey (2018) – a school-based study with focus on primary schools – revealed that, of 200 6-12-year-olds reviewed in Antigua who were healthy with no known medical illnesses, 16.2 percent were living with obesity and 37.6 percent were overweight.
A&B’s Health Ministry revealed that focus group discussions conducted in 2021 among young children found that 70 percent consumed Sugar Sweetened Beverages (SSBs) more often than water.
Furthermore, constant school closures, the shift toward online learning and the need to social distance, due to the ongoing pandemic, have drastically reduced the amount of physical activity that children engage in.
At the same time, food insecurity, socio-economic hardship and psychological strain have pushed some families, including the children, toward unhealthy diets; this was concerning even before the pandemic.
The government’s Food and Nutrition Security Policy from 2012 noted that A&B is experiencing a period of nutritional transition, where diets have shifted “away from indigenous staples, locally-grown fruits, vegetables, legumes…to diets consisting of more processed foods, more added sugars [and] more foods high in fats/oils and sodium”.
Dr Shivon Belle-Jarvis, Head of the Paediatric Department at the Sir Lester Bird Medical Centre, certainly agrees.
“Curbing obesity is everyone’s business. Now more than ever, governments, civil society, communities, households, families and individuals need to come together to ensure that – where obesity is concerned – Antigua and Barbuda is not left behind.
“The implementation of national policies, nutritional guidelines for schools, regulating the marketing of sugar sweetened beverages, subsidising local fruits and vegetables, ensuring a baby-friendly hospital (where breast milk is THE feed of choice) and ensuring that each child is physically active are some methods that will prevent Antigua and Barbuda from plunging deeper into this global crisis,” she explained.
The WHO recommends that children aged 5-17 years take part in at least 60 minutes of physical activity per day, and this is one policy that is partially in effect in A&B.
Physical Education (PE) is only mandatory in government schools up to second form, however, some students are choosing to continue it further and some private schools have mandated PE in all forms.
In 2010, 78.3 percent of children in Antigua and Barbuda between 11 and 17 were said to be attaining less than 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous-intensity physical activity daily.