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Raffique Shah


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We are not obese

By Raffique Shah
April 7, 2013

Trinidad and Tobago is not the third fattest nation in the world. In fact, I venture to add that we would hardly rank among the top fifty countries when it comes to obesity. What are the scientific bases for my bold pronouncements? They are the same used by Britain's Daily Mail when the tabloid threw the fat spotlight on us last week—none! Or let's say I trust my eyes when it comes to evaluating fatness.

I was disappointed when the local media picked up the Mail story and milked it for all it was not worth. Editorials focussed on the "findings", health experts and nutritionists weighed in, and Health Minister Fuad Khan dived into the fray, taking a dim view of our obesity-shame and proposing measures we needed to implement to climb out of the fat-bin.

It reminded me of another unscientific survey that ranked this country as the third happiest in the world. We rubbed our fat bellies, burped, broke wind, laughed raucously, and chorused, "Boy, yuh hear dat? We is de happiest people in de world! Hehehehehe!" No one asked who did what survey, what methodology, if any, was used, or how we ended up on the upper level of the happy-scale. Both these "reports" might have been media pranks, the former an April's Fool joke that some lazy journalist concocted when he or she could not provide the editor with "good copy" on a slow weekend.

I'm not suggesting that we do not have what I would term and overweight problem, as distinct from an obesity problem. Yes, we do. It's also a serious health problem that we need to wage war on for many reasons, as I shall advance. But obesity? Nah! I learnt what obesity was when I first visited the United States in the early 1970s. I encountered people who must have weighed 400 pounds and more, waddling their way through city streets, invariably devouring hamburgers and hot dogs by the kilos, as I stood in awe, in wonderment.

I could not believe what I saw, nor could I understand how others appeared to believe that such avoirdupois was normal. Here at home, growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, seriously fat people, who might have barely topped 300 pounds, were known far and wide for their girth—and mirth. As a boy growing up in the Freeport district, I remember "fatman" from Bank Village (never knew his correct name) whose cycle-saddle had special springs, and who was a jovial character. Others like him, who were few—a schoolmate of mine was one—had similar reputations and dispositions.

This country first experienced a real problem with weight control and by extension the so-called lifestyle diseases, in the 1980s. By then, television had replaced outdoor activities as a principal form of recreation, fast and unhealthy foods had become the choice of most people, children included, and our varied and nutritious fruits were decimated to make way for housing and other development.

Let me put this change in another perspective. As a boy of nine, and until I was twelve, I walked or cycled some three miles to primary school. My dozens of friends took this daily trek of six miles in stride, never once complaining. In so many ways, it was fun. Additionally, we would play at school during breaks, and there were sports periods during which we engaged in organised activities. Our lunch was ordinary home-cooked meals washed down with tap water. Snacks were invariably fruits like guavas and mangoes foraged from nearby trees. And on weekends and during vacation, we enjoyed even more outdoor activities.

By the 1980s, this healthy lifestyle that most children enjoyed, changed forever. The family car replaced walking and public transport. Television and video games replaced bat and ball. Soon, computers and an array of technological devices became as commonplace as "doubles", burgers and other unhealthy foods, not to add salty and sugary snacks. By the 1990s, we had a serious health problem on our hands, and both children and adults were becoming fatter and lazier.

Around that time, I sat on a high-powered committee appointed by Prime Minister Patrick Manning that looked at local food production with a view to reducing our high import bill and promoting healthier lifestyles. I argued passionately for a nutrition-focussed education programme that would steer people away from death-dealing foods, and towards the consumption of locally produced fruits, vegetables and complex carbohydrates, among other healthy choices.

At that time, too, I was heavily involved in conscripting people of all ages into the simplest form of getting healthy and staying fit—jogging and running. The costliest item is a good pair of shoes. I organised clubs, races, fun-runs, training for young and old. Many people responded and I am happy when today, years later, I see them still staying fit. I myself have a yo-yo record, actually putting on weight in my thirties and forties. However, I could always jog at least two miles; mostly, I averaged four miles a day, with a long run of eight-to-ten miles once weekly.

If I could do it, anyone can: I am one lazy son-of-a-gun! So, eating wisely (I confess to having a sweet tooth!) and exercising are the simplest formulae to staying healthy. Adults need to steer children away from the daily dosage of salty and sweet snacks, worst of all that soft drink every time they are thirsty. Drink water, as the man says in an electronic media advertisement.

Having expatiated on health and fitness, I remain convinced, though, that we do not yet have an obesity problem. Still, we need to intensify the war against unhealthy lifestyles even more vigorously than we fight crime. More people are crippled by or die from preventable diseases than are victims of crime.

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