The figures have been known for some years now— over half of the adult population of Trinidad and Tobago is overweight. But a recent comparative statistic, which ranks T&T as the third fattest country in the world, emphasises just how dire this situation is.
Such statistics should be taken with a pinch of salt (but no more than a pinch). Nonetheless, previous surveys have consistently placed this country in the top 20 nations with overweight populations. And this is almost certainly the core reason that most Trinidadians and Tobagonians die from lifestyle diseases, such as heart attacks, strokes, diabetes and even cancer.
These four diseases alone account for about 60 per cent of deaths every year, and each one has been linked to overweight. Put another way, six out of every ten persons in T&T could probably live ten to 20 years longer, if they kept their weight at the optimum level and took other health-care precautions.
According to the article published on Easter Monday in the Daily Mail newspaper in the United Kingdom, the average body mass index (BMI) for Trinidad and Tobago men was 26.6 and 30.6 for our women. That means that the average person is anywhere from 20 to 50 pounds overweight, and that women have a more serious challenge than men.
It is significant, however, that men are more likely to die of the causes listed above than women, and that women in T&T have an average life expectancy of 73 years as compared to 68 years for men. This is because men have other poor lifestyle habits such as drinking and smoking which, when added to overweight, virtually guarantee an early death.
But the basic problem is that citizens eat too much and exercise too little. It may be significant that several island nations in the Caribbean and in the South Pacific score highest in overweight populations. Over-consumption of carbohydrates and, ironically enough, limited opportunities for exercise are at the root of the problem. And there are also cultural factors, such as the belief that indigenous starchy foods, such as dasheen and yam, are somehow healthy. The other culprit is sugar—in soft drinks and in candy, which are consumed by children in high quantities, setting the sickly stage for health problems four to five decades later.
This is a serious public health issue. Yet the solution is deceptively simple: a balanced diet, no smoking, little or no alcohol, and at least 30 minutes of exercise three times a week. The deception lies in the fact that the average person finds it difficult to summon the motivation and discipline to adopt such a lifestyle.
Changing that means changing attitudes, which will require public-health campaigns and facilities.