Nutrition Trends and Changing Dietary Patterns in the Caribbean
The rise in chronic non-communicable nutrition related diseases in the Caribbean accompanied by spiraling health care costs has occurred parallel with changing dietary patterns. For example, the total direct and indirect costs of treating obesity related diseases in five countries in 2003 was estimated to be US$1,000 million. Coming from an era of protein-energy malnutrition (PEM) when food choices favoured energy density (high fat, sugar and protein), coupled with many external influences, Caribbean people have become conditioned to a diet not considered to be healthy. We are now faced with the double burden of under-nutrition (pockets of PEM and iron deficiency anaemia persist) and over-nutrition (cancers, diabetes, hypertension) which threatens to erode all efforts at achieving food and nutrition security.
A second concern is the over dependence on a predominantly imported food supply and the need to develop the local food and agriculture industry so as to provide more nutritious and value-added alternatives. Caribbean consumers have always been attuned to imported foods and perceive local foods to be expensive. On a cost nutrient basis, several imported foods e.g. whole dried milk powder and wheat flour, give ‘the best food value for money’. Food security through increased local food production must have a clear goal; that is to improve the nutrition status of our people thereby leading to increased productivity, prosperity and socio-economic development. Dietary guidelines should favour low sodium and low fat criteria for food products, beverages and snacks with reduced sugar content and high fibre and possibly organic alternatives.
Food availability and food consumption trends reveal that dietary practices are probably more to blame for the existing poor health situation than are the food products themselves. People make choices based on inherent personal factors such as taste, experience and environmental influences. The food choices and meal patterns of adolescents are as much a factor of availability and accessibility as it is personal choices. Changing lifestyles account for one of the main influences on why people eat the way they do. However, environmental conditions strongly influenced by trade policies, globalisation and declining agricultural outputs also play a role. Much opportunity exists for farmers and agro-processors to target the needs of different market segments with differentiated value-added products, given better knowledge of how people make food choices.
To achieve food and nutrition security requires more insight into the causes of the problem through further research, and more collaborative multi-sectoral efforts. Only by working together will the various sectors (agriculture, health and nutrition, trade, education, science and innovation) achieve the collective objective of improved agricultural and nutrition outcomes. Collaboration will surpass the achievement of any sector working alone. Caribbean populations must also be made aware of the challenges and their role in creating and alleviating the problems. While governments can be called on to pass legislation, the impetus for change must originate from the people. Renewed efforts at educating the public on nutrition and employing social marketing strategies utilising modern technology will provide the impetus for change.
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