Diet and Obesity in the Caribbean: Living Large with Culinary Amnesia

Progress and modernization are measured in many forms. The dietary habits of Caribbean peoples have over the past forty-five years changed drastically with the influx of international fast food chains. What was fondly termed Phat or Thick when describing the physiques of black women can now in many instances, and quite rightly, be called obese. The condition does not exist exclusively among black  women; it is rampant among young, aged, and black men alike. It is also disproportionately  affecting the very young.

In the past year, on three recent trips to the Caribbean, one to Trinidad and two to St. Croix, I have noticed the decline of local restaurants that serve indigenous fare, especially on St. Croix, and the sharp increase of  KFC, Pizza Hut, Wendy’s, IHOP, and Chinese fast food restaurants. This trend is reflected throughout these islands and the Caribbean, and on the US mainland because of the ready availability of their prepared products. This accessibility has discouraged many people from cooking familiar local fresh foods that are more tasty and better for their health.

Although there are many of these fast food restaurants in Trinidad and Tobago, because the country is much larger than St. Croix most of these chains and convenience establishments are found principally in the larger cities and towns. The higher concentration on a small island such as St. Croix has a more devastating affect upon people’s eating habits. In Trinidad and Tobago most of the local restaurants that serve indigenous foods do not have that level of competition and therefore still exist.

Visiting St. Croix this past June, I obtained a closer look at what people were eating and found it very revealing. All the fast food restaurants were filled for breakfast, lunch and dinner with mostly local people. The question of this observation was posed to an island resident whose answer was that many of the people seemed to be suffering from culinary amnesia. Fascinated by that answer, my next move was to look at what people were shopping for at the super markets. There were very few differences as far as what was in the shopping carts, especially when comparison was made  between the inner city of the mainland of the US and the island of St. Croix: carts were filled with canned foods, sodas, frozen pizzas, pasta, and juices all with high starch, fats, sodium, high fructose and sugar.

What is especially amazing about this issue of diet in the Caribbean is that there is an abundance of fresh available produce year round. Mangoes, cherries, plums, root vegetables of all kinds, fish and other seafood, grass-fed animals for meat, and fresh air thrown in for good measure are all the basic necessary ingredients for good, clean, healthy living.

The daily stress of modern living is the inescapable reality of most people regardless of where they live. The added dimension of stress to bad diet has elevated the incidences of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, hypertension, and kidney disease in the Caribbean and the rest of the world. This double affliction is not confined to any race or ethnic group, but the hardest hit are people with no options because of economic or geographic factors. The people of the Caribbean have local continuous choice if they decide to exercise it.

Taking a tour in search of vendors who sold local fruits and vegetables was a stunning disappointment. What used to be a thriving small business among ordinary people has almost totally disappeared. Between Christiansted and Fredericksted there are a few fruit and vegetable stands run by Rastafarians who seem to have an idea about how to retain their dietary heritage, but for most residents who previously made daily use of such local providers the supermarkets are now the accepted convenient quick way to obtain food.

Gradually, however, as I talked with many on the island some people are beginning to understand that what they are consuming is not in the best interest of their health. They are jogging, walking and doing some of the things that will insure better health through exercise since many of the jobs requiring heavy manual labor have been eliminated or displaced by technology.

What is most apparent is that there has to be a concerted effort between the government and the public to fight against this condition that is a plague among people of color, particularly in areas of the world like the Caribbean where proper health care is still a luxury. There are resources in these places which, if used properly, can be a vital part of the return to good or better health.

It is a matter of educating young and old alike about the virtues of their surroundings and the intrinsic value of their local culinary heritage.

Ken Forde, writer and poet, regularly contributes to the Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project blog site.

 

This entry was posted in Afro-Caribbeans. Bookmark the permalink.