Sugary drinks, pastries and fast food may be firmly entrenched in the national diet. But with more than one in 10 of the country’s population now suffering from diabetes, local medics say overindulgence is helping fuel a health crisis.
Alarming statistics from the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) indicate that 13 percent of people living in Antigua and Barbuda are diabetic, putting them at increased risk of heart attack, chronic kidney disease, blindness and stroke.
As the globe marks World Diabetes Day on Monday, the Heart and Stroke Foundation is placing the spotlight firmly on preventative measures.
What might be heaven on the taste buds is not so sweet on the heart, says Foundation president and consultant cardiologist Dr Georgette Meade.
“Diabetes increases your chance of having a heart attack by two to three times. It can also affect the eyes leading to blindness, along with stroke and nerve damage,” she explains.
In some cases, diabetes can lead to peripheral arterial disease which causes the blood vessels to narrow, reducing blood flow to the legs and feet.
“We see quite a few cases where diabetes results in amputation of limbs,” Dr Meade says.
World Diabetes Day is marked annually on November 14 to raise public awareness about the illness, its symptoms and how to prevent it.
“We have seen an increase in diabetes in recent years and the biggest contributor is an unhealthy diet that’s high in sugar,” Dr Meade continues.
Sweetened drinks, candy, bread, white rice and pasta are among the major culprits, she explains.
“People should always monitor the labels on the food and drinks they buy; they would be surprised to see how much sugar they contain.
“Too many people, even after being diagnosed with diabetes, are still eating foods they know they shouldn’t,” she says.
“It’s important to have regular screenings and medical checks even if you have no symptoms. And don’t wait until you’re in your 40s; you can start getting check-ups in your 20s.
“Prevention is key because once you have established diabetes, you are at risk of developing complications. People are still not taking their health as seriously as they should.”
Regular exercise and limiting one’s alcohol consumption are also vital, Dr Meade adds.
“Gone are the days when type two diabetes was considered something that affects persons aged 40 and over,” says Dr Tadia Smith, a friend of the Foundation.
“We are finding younger persons getting it now. A recent health fair diagnosed some as young as 16 with diabetes who didn’t feel any symptoms so wouldn’t have known without the screening.”
Dr Smith is appealing to community clinics to organise regular health fairs at local schools to check children’s blood pressure, blood sugar, eyesight and BMI, along with sharing nutritional advice.
Initiatives such as food label-reading sessions and ‘drink only water’ day would also reap dividends in youngsters’ health and wellbeing, she says.
Too many unhealthy snacks and sugary drinks are being sold on school compounds, Dr Smith continues.
“A healthy lifestyle doesn’t happen overnight; it comes with practice. It’s OK to eat shawarmas and other fast food but in moderation, say twice a month. Cooking at home is healthier and saves you money too,” she says.
“There is a lot of obesity among schoolchildren, which means greater risk of diabetes and heart disease. It’s crucial to screen for all these things, while making sure our children are getting enough exercise, enough sleep and drinking enough water.”
Dr Smith adds, “Having diabetes doesn’t affect just one part of the body; it’s a systemic disease that affects the eyes, the brain, every part of you.
“We shouldn’t wait for November 14; increasing awareness every day of the year will see better outcomes.”
Dr Saleem Hughes, Consultant Paediatrician at the Sir Lester Bird Medical Centre, agrees.
“Prevention is the best cure. To those persons who are not known to have diabetes, be sure to get your yearly health checks, keep your weight under control, exercise more, maintain a healthy diet, avoid habits such as smoking and alcohol use,” she says.
“To those living with diabetes: You are not alone. Be active, eat right, track your blood sugars, adhere to your treatment plan. You can live a normal life.”
Dr Hughes says 31 diabetics aged 25 and under have been identified to date in Antigua and Barbuda.
“Type one diabetes is a genetic condition that shows up early in life, whereas type two is mainly lifestyle-related and develops over time,” she explains.
“With increased childhood obesity we are seeing an increase in type two diabetes in childhood.
“Let us instil healthy lifestyle practices in our youths. Research has shown that maintaining a healthy weight, doing at least 30 minutes of physical activity five days a week and eating healthy foods most of the time can prevent or delay type two diabetes.
“Let us aim to stop it before it starts.”
The country’s Heart and Stroke Foundation was established in February 2020 to act as a voice and support system for patients and their families, raise funds, stage community events, and conduct local research into the prevalence of heart disease and stroke.