A weakness for sweetness

Sunday, July 1, 2012 in the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian

The headline statistic in the research that the Diabetes Association has been doing into the incidence of the disease among school-age children is surely the startling revelation that one child in each classroom in Trinidad and Tobago has been testing positive for diabetes.


That’s roughly one in every thirty, but the numbers grow even more disturbing because the focus of much of the association’s testing, children in Standards Three and Four, shows a sharp rise since testing began in 2007. That year, the researchers recorded 200 children with diabetes. By 2009, the number rose to 350 and has now surged to 613.


According to Carlton Phillip, president of the Diabetes Association, there are 175,000 diabetics in Trinidad and Tobago and 55 percent of the population falls under the classification of obese. Diabetes is ranked second among causes of death in this country. Mr Phillip points to the poorly considered diets favoured by young people and the unhealthy levels of fast food and sugary drinks they consume.


These facts have not escaped the attention of Health Minister Fuad Khan who has made healthy diets and fat reduction hallmarks of his Ministry’s agenda since taking office. On May 12, Minister Khan made it clear that the high prevalence of diabetes and cholesterol in school children and the abuse of energy drinks, rich in caffeine and sugar, were cause for major concern.


Energy drinks were a particular focus for the Health Minister after he turned the sod for a new student study/recreational centre within the Faculty of Medical Sciences at Mt Hope. Describing the popular drinks as a “bomb cocktail,” he expressed concern about the effect of the equivalent of ten cups of coffee in a single drink.


In January 2011, in a letter to the editor, Dr Navi Muradali called for a ban on sales of soft drinks in schools and urged the Association of Nutritionists and Dieticians to join the discussion by providing an ideal list of snacks and drinks to be used. The minister’s concerns have found traction in his outspoken position on the issue and a Fight the Fat campaign which seeks to explain the issues to the young consumers risking exposure to these chronic illnesses.


Certainly the onset of significant numbers of children younger than seven years old testing positive for Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes should trigger a more robust response to the dangers posed by readily available but poorly balanced meals. Minister Khan has sensibly taken a pre-emptive approach to the problem, seeking to educate people who may be putting themselves at risk without fully understanding the consequences of their diets.


Dr Maritza Fernandes, paediatrician consultant at the Eric Williams Medical Science Complex, is on record as noting that one in four of our children is medically overweight. By targeting obesity a rising threat among the nation’s children and one of the most obvious indicators of at-risk behaviours likely to lead to the early onset of diabetes and cholesterol, the minister has chambered one critical bullet in his war on the problems of chronic diseases.


His next round must be aimed squarely at the food and drink offered for sale in school cafeterias. As the Minister has pointed out, this country is already spending millions on health care and medication for chronic diseases offered through the CDAP programme.


Some pre-emptive spending on youth-focused meal advice and creative explanations of the issues arising from the most common foods they consume coupled with a more aggressive liaison with the Ministry of Education on recommended menus in school cafeterias will do much to encourage defensive meal selection and reduce a rise in youth diabetes that’s hovering on the edge of being called an epidemic.

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