Letters & Opinion

Preventing Childhood Obesity – Schools and Policymakers are Responsible too

CHILDHOOD obesity is preventable yet, 1 in every 4 children in Saint Lucia is overweight or obese. While it is easy to blame parents for their children’s poor dietary patterns and sedentary lifestyles, holding them accountable overlooks the fact that laws, regulations, and the built environment greatly influences behaviors. Children spend more time in schools than they do in other environments. The question is: do these environments motivate and support healthy practices?

A child’s physical and social surroundings shape their food preferences, purchasing decisions and eating behaviors; and scientific studies show that the availability of energy-dense snacks and sugary beverages sold in schools are an important source of students’ intake of empty calories. Certainly, no single intervention can prevent childhood obesity; but schools can play an important role.

The routine intake of sugary drinks contributes to the obesity epidemic. In neighbouring islands where statistics are kept, such as Barbados and Jamaica, over 70% of students aged 13-15 reported drinking one or more sugar-sweetened beverage a day. The promotion and marketing of unhealthy energy-dense food and drinks to children compound these problems, yet the food and beverage sector frequently enters contractual arrangements with cash-strapped schools and their canteens, in the hopes of creating life-long consumers. Some schools have also reduced the time allotted for physical education, creating the perfect storm for childhood obesity.

The time has come for schools in Saint Lucia to implement nutritional guidelines and standards for the meals sold in their canteens, prohibit the marketing and sale of energy-dense nutrient-poor snacks and sugary drinks on their premises, and to offer more opportunities for physical activity. Elevated sugar consumption is an important contributor to weight gain, and sugary drinks are the primary source of sugar in the diets of Caribbean children and adolescents. Restricting the sale of sugar- sweetened beverages in schools therefore, is an easy first step.

In the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), the governments of Bermuda, Bahamas, Grenada, Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago have already restricted or banned the sale of sugar- sweetened beverages in schools. Talk of a similar ban in Saint Lucian schools began in November 2017, but an action plan and timeline has not yet surfaced despite the seriousness of the situation.

Perhaps Saint Lucia can pilot a “healthy school” model like Barbados, where select schools will ban the sale of sugar-sweetened beverages and heavily promote the drinking of water, among other health initiatives aimed at reducing the intake of saturated fats, cholesterol, sodium and sugar, and increasing vegetable and fruit consumption.

The complications associated with childhood obesity are physical, social and emotional. Furthermore, children with obesity are more likely to stay obese into adulthood and develop chronic diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular disease at a younger age – non-communicable diseases that are leading causes of death in the Caribbean region. Let us remember that civil society wields significant power. Let us raise awareness of the importance of childhood obesity prevention in addressing non-communicable diseases. Let us shift the responsibility away from individuals and hold our institutions and governments more accountable. Let us advocate for policies that can modify our food system, create healthier environments and have population-level impact.

In the region, an ingrained conflict of interest makes it more difficult to obtain the necessary buy-in and commitment from key stakeholders in government and the private sector. Still, our voices can speak louder than the voice of the industry.

— Tamara Marie
Healthcare Administration graduate student at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health

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