By JEFFARAH GIBSON
Tribune Features Writer
A new report has ranked the Bahamas as the country with the highest percentage of overweight people in Latin American and the Caribbean.
The 2016 report by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) and the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) estimates that nearly 70 per cent of the Bahamian population is overweight.
Obesity and overweight are on the rise throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, except for Haiti, the FAO reports, and are particularly prevalent among women and children.
The Panorama of Food and Nutrition Security in Latin America and the Caribbean noted that close to 360 million people – around 58 per cent of the inhabitants of the region – are overweight, with the highest rates observed in the Bahamas (69 per cent), Mexico (64 per cent) and Chile (63 per cent).
With the exception of Haiti (38.5 per cent), Paraguay (48.5 per cent) and Nicaragua (49.4 per cent), overweight affects more than half the population of all countries in the region.
The report also noted obesity affects 140 million people – 23 per cent of the region’s population – and that the highest rates are to be found in the Caribbean countries of Barbados (36 per cent) Trinidad and Tobago, Antigua and Barbuda all at around 31 per cent.
The increase in obesity has disproportionately impacted women: in more than 20 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, the rate of female obesity is 10 percentage points higher than that of men.
Speaking with Tribune Health about the new report, licenced nutritionist and dietitian Shandera Smith said it will take a cultural shift to tackle overweight and obesity in the Bahamas.
“Our diet for one is very different from that of other Caribbean islands. Culturally speaking, our idea of food has more fat, more sugar and salt. We eat a lot of things like peas and rice, macaroni, fried chicken and fast foods as well. We tend to drink a great deal of sweetened beverages and a lot of these beverages are marketed towards children. All of this contributes to obesity and overweight because these foods do very little for our bodies,” she said.
Ms Smith, who is also a member of the Bahamas Association of Nutritionist and Dietetics (BAND), she has found that many people do not eat a sufficient amount of fruits and vegetables.
“Our diets are lacking fruits and vegetables, and if people can get more of that, it would help,” she said.
“We encourage people to eat native fruit as well. What we find is that a lot of children don’t consider the native fruits like the dilly a fruit. When you ask them what a fruit is, they say apples or oranges. Eating the native fruits benefits people because they are cheaper and the nutritions that they we get from them are better suited for the environment that we live in so we don’t have to worry,” she said.
While a healthy diet is one part of the equation, staying physically active is the other vital one.
“People seem to be getting the message about being active, but the way they see exercise must change. Some people only exercise when they want to lose weight, which is still good, but I think we need to shift the thinking of people so that they see exercise as something vital that needs to happen everyday. We know that with the prevalence of crime people are afraid to go out and be active, but we have also been trying to get people to do so things in their own homes,” she said.
“As for children, they are not as active as they should be. While in school, physical education is only offered once a week, so kids only have this time be active while in school. So our culture seems to feed the obesity problem we are currently faced with.”
Ms Smith said there is no “cut and dried” route to tackling obesity on a national scale, however, even small changes in diet and exercise practices can make a big difference in the long term.
The new FAO/PAHO Panorama report points out that one of the main factors contributing to the rise of obesity and overweight has been the change in dietary patterns. Economic growth, increased urbanisation, higher average incomes and the integration of the region into international markets have reduced the consumption of traditional preparations and increased consumption of ultra-processed products, a problem that has had greater impact on areas and countries that are net food importers.
According to FAO’s Regional Representative Eve Crowley, “The alarming rates of overweight and obesity in Latin America and the Caribbean should act as a wake-up call to governments in the region to introduce policies that address all forms of hunger and malnutrition by linking food security, sustainability, agriculture, nutrition and health.”