Experts around the world say efforts to reduce overweight and obesity, especially in children, have been slow and irregular. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that over 41 million children under the age of five are obese.
Since 2011, the Puerto Rico Health Department has been expressing concern over childhood obesity noting that 18.3 percent of children in WIC Program were overweight. Studies on teenagers reveal that between 11 and 15 percent of these children are obese.
Obesity is defined as ''abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that presents a risk to health'' since obesity is likely to lead to serious diseases or conditions such as diabetes and hypertension. According to doctors and other health experts, preconception/pre-pregnancy and pregnancy care are one of the first measures to fight childhood obesity. They recommend breastfeeding, as well as healthy nutrition in early childhood.
A WHO special commission working to fight childhood obesity has expressed the urgent need to promote healthy nutrition habits. They call governments, International Partners, Civil Society, NGO's and the Private Sector to help “limit energy intake from total fats and shift fat consumption away from saturated fats to unsaturated fats.” The organization suggests guidelines on healthy nutrition, as well as on the importance of sleep and physical activity in early childhood.
Some of WHO recommendations have been translated into practical measures in schools that have implemented soda sales bans in their facilities and have incorporated menus developed by nutritionists in their cafeterias.
At the governmental level in Puerto Rico, it is important that the Programa de Comedores Escolares (School Cafeterias Program) ensures a nutritious and balanced menu for children, especially when for some children from vulnerable sectors, what they receive at school may be their only hot meal of the day.
The Department of Education should encourage more students to eat breakfast in the cafeterias before the school day starts. It is also important that teachers promote healthy snacks to avoid consuming junk food.
According to experts, obesity can affect academic achievement, as it often limits the children´s capacity to receptivity in the classroom, say experts. It also limits sports performance. In this sense, the WHO commission suggests comprehensive programs that encourage physical activity and reduce sedentary habits between children and teens. In Puerto Rico, the work of the El Ángel Foundation, led by Miguel Cotto and focused on fighting childhood obesity, is remarkable. These efforts as well as others with similar goals, deserve strong support.
WHO notes that some governments have legislated to limit the sale of low nutritional value products. In addition, they have encouraged the consumption of vegetables and other fresh products, including local crops, not frozen or with artificial preservatives. Puerto Rico should consider these initiatives especially to promote agriculture and the consumption of island fruits rather than imported ones.
People may be more vulnerable to obesity-related malnutrition. However, these are largely preventable or treatable diseases or conditions. Fighting this health problem must begin at home. Each adult who eliminated bad nutrition habits creates the model to forge healthier and more productive generations. And Puerto Rico has an important role to play in that mission.