Letters & Opinion

No Single Intervention Will Combat Obesity. Everybody Needs to Act

“Obesity is a major public health concern for us in the Region. We have some of the highest rates of overweight and obesity in the Americas among adults. Childhood obesity is associated with health problems such as Type 2 diabetes during childhood and has been linked to a higher risk of disability and premature death into adulthood,” stated Dr. Joy St. John, CARPHA’s Executive Director in observance of World Obesity Day.

On March 4, World Obesity Day is observed under the theme “Everybody Needs to Act”.  This theme is meant to remind us that we can all come together to ensure happier, healthier, and longer lives for everybody, through more respect, better care, actions, and policies.

Being obese, places an individual at a high risk for developing non-communicable diseases (NCDs), such as hypertension, diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular diseases. The COVID-19 pandemic has posed an additional risk to people living with obesity, as they are twice as likely to be hospitalised if they contract the COVID-19 virus. The pandemic has also added a burden to Caribbean health care systems which has, in some instances, led to delays and reduced access to support and treatment for people living with obesity.

In addition, COVID-19 lockdowns have worsened risk factors for weight gain in children. One preliminary study found that children in lockdown reported eating more meals, more ultra-processed foods high in fat, sugar, and salt, had reduced levels of physical activity and increased screen time[1].

Obesity is not solely related to a person’s weight. It is about more than a person’s weight. This disease is rooted in a combination of genetic, psychological, sociocultural, economic, and environmental factors. These environmental factors are whole of society problems, and individuals should not have to face obesity alone.

Genetics account for about 40-70% of likelihood of developing obesity; life events such as prenatal life, early adulthood, pregnancy, illnesses (including mental illnesses) and medications can all influence weight gain. Additionally, lack of sleep and elevated levels of stress disturb hormones which can affect your weight, and access to ultra-processed foods, marketing of unhealthy foods and lack of access to healthcare can contribute to obesity.

Obesity is not isolated to any one country or region. We all need to act. Collectively, we need to fight against social stigma associated with obesity. As individuals, we can do our part by becoming more physically active, and reducing the consumption of salt, fats and sugar and increasing the consumption of fruits and vegetables. We need to advocate for “green spaces” within our communities. Families cannot change their genes, but they can adjust the family environment to encourage healthy eating habits and physical activity. Governments are urged to improve policies that prioritise the prevention and management of obesity as a health issue.  Employers should recognise the impact of stress on obesity and adopt policies that encourage employees to prioritize health throughout the working day and create a physical and cultural environment that promotes good mental and physical health.

Initiatives spearheaded by CARPHA to combat childhood obesity include the Six-Point Policy Package which sets out priority areas for action, such as, mandatory food labelling, nutritional standards and guidelines for schools, and reduction in the marketing of unhealthy foods. Front of Package Warning Labels have been found to effective in supporting healthy food choices. CARPHA continues to support its member states and collaborate with regional and international organisations to minimize the incidence and impact of obesity in the Caribbean region. CARPHA also supports the CARICOM Intergovernmental group on unhealthy diets and obesogenic environments.

CARPHA, in collaboration with Ministries of Health and Education in Grenada and Saint Lucia, implemented an intervention in schools to promote healthy environments and diets to prevent obesity and diabetes. ‘Reversing the Rise in Childhood Obesity’ was funded by the World Diabetes Foundation. As part of the project, a recipe book Kids Can Cook Too was developed to support sustained healthy eating behaviours of children.

We must act now … stop stigmatising and blaming. Let us work as a team to combat obesity and demand change to ensure people get the necessary care and treatment.

No single intervention will combat obesity. Together, our actions can speak volumes. This is why “Everybody Needs to Act.” Now.

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