Trimming the fat problem

Dr. Christopher Tufton

Gleaner Archive with text from presentation made at 75th World Health Assembly in Geneva, Switzerland.- June 9, 2022 

JAMAICA AND the Caribbean have an obesity problem of crisis proportions, one that is fuelling the epidemic of lifestyle diseases that imperil the quality of life of people, from their physical health and mental wellness to their pockets.

It is time to trim the fat; the data tell us so. The Caribbean has one of the fastest growth rates of obesity, which is a risk factor for non-communicable diseases, (NCDs) including diabetes and hypertension. Data from the 2016-17 Jamaica Health and Lifestyle Survey revealed that one in two Jamaicans is overweight or obese.

Alarmingly, overweight and obesity trends for adults moved from 34 per cent in 2000 to 51 per cent in 2008 and then to 54 per cent in 2016. The data further revealed that females are more affected, with two-thirds of Jamaican women 15 years or older being overweight or obese.

The obesity level among high-school-age youngsters is also a challenge. The Global School Health Survey, 2017 indicated that 65 per cent of children 13-17 years old were overweight and 26 per cent were considered obese. It also showed that obesity is increasing for boys, moving from 5.3 per cent to 10.3 per cent; and from 6.7 per cent to 9.9 per cent for girls.

Key to addressing the issue is influencing consumer behaviour and regulating the food environment, which involves combining social and clinical sciences approaches and calling for reformulation as a key strategy for reducing the production and consumption of unhealthy foods.


Diet has a part to play in tackling obesity, and poor nutrition can play a key role in increasing the risk of obesity. Given the crises of NCDs and premature illness and death directly linked to the consumption of unhealthy processed foods, there is need to ensure that consumers know what is in their foods.

In the Caribbean, front-of-package labelling is being undertaken as part of a multifaceted approach to address the increasing burden of obesity. The aim is to give consumers important labelling information in a simple and easily understood format, to allow them to identify pre-packaged foods which are high in ‘critical nutrients’.

In line with Jamaica’s focus on reducing risk factors for obesity, we recently tabled a School Nutrition Green Paper, with discussions to take place this year to transform it into policy. We also have a School Nutrition Standards to guide the purchase and consumption of products within schools.

In 2019, Jamaica also took the bold step of introducing restrictions on the sale of sweetened beverages in our schools. We are also conducting baseline studies on salts, sugars and trans fats in Jamaica. Policies on obesity and other NCDs must be guided by evidence.

Key findings from a recent study on trans fats in Jamaica revealed that 117 of 296 food samples, that is, 39.5 per cent of commonly consumed foods in Jamaica, contain trans fat. Industrially produced trans fats were found in 12 of the 15 food categories. Based on these findings, we are taking steps to remove industrially produced trans fats from our food supply.

Jamaica is the first Caribbean country with comprehensive data to join the PAHO Initiative to Eliminate Industrially Produced Trans-Fatty Acids by 2025.

We must also emphasise physical activity as a formidable tool for tackling obesity. We have used culture and music as creative tools to get people moving in communities and institutions, like schools and the workplace.

In line with our vision to increase movement, we developed Caribbean Moves as a regional initiative, which will be launched this year. This initiative had its genesis in Jamaica Moves. In partnership with the Ministry of Education, we also launched our Jamaica Moves in the schools’ programme to promote healthy lifestyles in our education institutions. We have also developed a physical activity guide for the workplace, with a similar intention for the work environment.

Reforming the primary healthcare system also forms part of the solution to obesity and NCDs. This includes widening services to focus on prevention, including nutrition and medical checks to guide citizens’ behaviour. We have also implemented a new Chronic Care Model for the Management of NCDs that will provide more curative services.

It is impossible to achieve our collective goals and objectives on obesity without strong partnerships. I have seen first-hand how important this is. In line with this thinking, Jamaica recently launched a multi-stakeholder, whole-of-government NCD Committee, and has worked closely with organisations such as The Heart Foundation of Jamaica, PAHO and other international and local NGOs, such as the NCD Alliance, to accomplish our goals. These groups provide support with advocacy, as well as technical capacity and financial support in some instances.

Overcoming current barriers to addressing obesity and meeting our global targets requires a multifaceted and a whole-of-society approach. The WHO recommendations on obesity and the Acceleration Plan on the agenda of this year’s World Health Assembly provide us with an opportunity to rethink and strengthen current approaches.

The Government of Jamaica has taken bold steps to tackle obesity and transform our food systems. We will continue in those efforts, and urge the people of Jamaica and our partners within and outside of the region to support us.

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