Eating healthy Editorial
Stabroek News
July 3, 2004

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On Thursday, national guidelines for healthy foods were launched. Appropriately, it was announced last week, the guidelines were developed following brainstorming sessions to identify major food and nutrition problems, and issues and surveys conducted on, among others, the eating habits of the elderly in low-income homes and of nursery-school aged children.

A report in Monday's issue of the Stabroek News, which outlined the need for these guidelines, revealed that "obesity, anaemia/iron deficiency, malnutrition in young children and poor diet quality were identified as the major problems in the society while the priority issues named were fat, sugar and sodium intake, physical inactivity, fruit and vegetable consumption, food preparation, food combinations, food safety, alcohol and complex carbohydrates."

For years, dieticians, nutritionists and health professionals have been preaching about the need for people to eat healthy foods and to exercise. But despite this obesity seems to be rising as well as the incidence of chronic diseases, especially the ones that result from poor eating habits. In Guyana, these experts are quick to highlight the abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables available that can and ought to be used, as well as the benefits of regular exercise and how optimal advantage should be taken of our two-season local weather. Yet it seems that people are not listening.

This is not true. The message is being heard. However, it cannot reach some of the target audience, among whom the difference between $20 and $200 is rather keenly felt. The results of the survey were not detailed, but economics dictates that it would have revealed that there were more $20 bags of corn curls or cheese balls in nursery school lunch-kits, than $60-a-pound bananas or six-for-$200 mangoes, plus the cost of travel to the market.

What should be obvious is that the dollar will continue to dictate the diet as long as junk food remains cheaper than fresh food and vegetables. Junk foods will dominate as long as poor, single-parent mothers working 12 hours a day as security guards, or bending under the drudgery of what could only be described, in some cases, as slave labour for meagre wages remain too hard-pressed to cook proper meals for their families. So while to these people eating a balanced diet from the different food groups is perhaps appealing, financially it is impractical and a full belly makes far more sense.

These, perhaps, rather than ignorance are the contributory factors to people's appalling eating habits. And bringing up five or six children while working 12-hour shifts puts exercise on the list of impossible things, no matter how free it is. So the closest many people ever get to realising their fantasies of the perfect body size is their hero-worship of fit (read thin) models and celebrities.

This does not mean that the healthy-eating guidelines are not necessary. They are. But there needs to be consciousness as to what will work where. For instance, it is believed that people who live in country areas have more access to cheap or free fruits and vegetables and perhaps fish, and efforts should be made to ensure that they utilise these in creative ways. But there's little point in telling very poor urban families about eating five fruits and vegetables a day, when what they need most are jobs that offer decent pay, which would in turn boost their self-esteem and give them some hope.

Perhaps the new dietary (sprinkles) supplements, which are to be manufactured locally, could be included in the guidelines to ensure that as a start, deficient nutrients are added to the average local diet. It is also encouraging to note that the guidelines are to be eventually integrated into the national schools' curriculum at the primary level. If behaviour change is to take place with regard to dietary habits, it is important to get the message across to young children.