Planning statistics show surge in unhealthy eating

Statistics for Maldives household food expenditure show a disturbing shift towards an “adverse dietary pattern”, with increased intakes of high-fat and sugary products, the Planning Department has revealed.

Health experts in the country have blamed the unhealthy diet of Maldivians for the high prevalence of cardiovascular diseases and metabolic disorders such diabetes among Maldivians, which account for almost 50 percent of the all deaths in the country. The comparative figure for the US is 25 percent.

According to the Household Income and Expenditure Survey, the structure of the Maldivian diet has shifted towards a “higher energy density diet with a greater role for fat and added sugars in foods, greater saturated fat intake, reduced intakes of complex carbohydrates and dietary fiber, and reduced fruit, vegetable and fish intakes.”

Eating less vegetables, fruits and fish

Overall, household expenditure on all the food groups has increased except for fruits and nuts, fish and vegetables.

The food expenditure on fruits and nuts reduced by 41.8 percent in the Maldives, although the percentage of the decline was higher among atolls, where a 45 percent reduction in fruits and nuts was recorded compared to the 30 percent decline in the capital Male’.

Within this group, food expenditure on bananas, tender coconut, papayas, coconut and apples declined by 50 percent or more in in 2010 compared to 2003, while the statistics further flagged a growing trend of substituting natural fruits with preserved or canned fruits.

“The household food expenditure on fruit cocktail and other canned and preserved fruits has increased over the period significantly,” the report read.

Household expenses on vegetables meanwhile recorded a 4 percent decline nationally, although an 18 percent and 33 percent increase was recorded in the atolls and Male’ respectively.

The Planning Department explained that expenditure on vegetables such as breadfruit, curry leaves and green chilli had reduced significantly, while spending on vegetables such as cabbage, onion and other fresh vegetables had “increased significantly.”

The department concluded: “If the changes in the prices are taken into account, in real terms, there is a decline in the household expenditure on fruits and vegetables. It is likely that there is an under-reporting of the consumption of own-produced fruits and vegetables such as breadfruits, green chili, curry leaves, coconut, papaya, etc, particularly in the atolls, as there is a difficulty valuing them in monetary terms.”

In the fish category – the traditional source of food for Maldivians – a net decrease of eight percent was recorded nationally in 2010.

In the same period, the spending patterns shows that eating fish declined by 23 percent in the atolls and in Male’ by 28 percent.

According the Planning department, the decline has most likely been caused by the decline in the overall fish catch since 2007 – therefore, shifting the people’s demand to the available alternative, imported meat.

“The household expenditure on frozen chicken and chicken products increased by 105 percent while the demand for sausages has increased by 306 percent,” the report observed.

“Sugar high”

According to the planning department, the food category that showed a “huge increase” in expenditure was sugar, jam, honey, syrups, chocolate and confectionery.

The major food products in this category that had a huge increase in the household expenditure included ice-creams, accounting to a staggering 4,630 percent increase in 2010, while chocolate increased by 1,071 percent, jelly by 1,332 percent and honey by 719 percent.

Although the planning department’s report does not specify, demand for caffeine, and energy drinks made with high fructose syrups or added sugar is on the rise among young.

Studies have concluded that added sugar is one of the greatest factors in the rise in obesity and other health conditions such as diabetes, tooth decay, poor nutrition and elevated triglycerides.

Furthermore, recent studies have also found eating too much sugar can make people forgetful and potentially cause permanent brain damage.

Meanwhile, spending on spices, short-eats and other snacks such as chicken rings, potato chips, popcorn – high in saturated fats –  increased substantially over the period.

Health concerns

Growing consumption of high-fat and sugary products, combined with behavioral risk factors such as physical inactivity and tobacco use,  has put a high number of people at the risk of non-communicable diseases such as heart and blood-related diseases, diabetes mellitus and other degenerative and chronic diseases, according to health experts.

Statistics from Health Mininstry show that in 2009, a total of 459 people (39 percent) died from circulatory system diseases which includes strokes, placing it at as the most common cause of death among all age groups, followed by respiratory diseases (12.3 percent).

Speaking to Minivan News, Internist Dr Ahmed Razee noted that consumption of healthy foods such as vegetables and fruits never reached the “preference levels” in the Maldives.

“Spending on vegetables or fruits have not declined. In fact, the truth is that it never increased,” Dr Raazee argued. “Junk food is commercially marketed and made available easily while the same thing has not be done for the vegetables and fruits,” he added.

Meanwhile, with unhealthy eating habits more people are in the having high levels of cholesterol and blood glucose, resulting in a higher risk of endocrine abnormalities leading to strokes and metabolic disorders among young people, said Dr Raazee, who has a special interest in diabetes and kidney diseases.

In an earlier interview to Minivan News, Public Health Programme Coordinator for the Center for Community Health and Disease Control (CCHDC), Dr Fathmath Nazla Rafeeq, also observed that malnutrition in the country was “quite alarming” considering the number of medical advances made in the country over the last few years.

Her comments, made on World Health Day, related specifically to fears over the national promotion of healthy diets, including issues of vitamin deficiency in expectant mothers and children, to the consumption of high-calorie junk food and energy drinks by young people.

According to figures published in 2009 by the World Health Organisation (WHO), 17.8 percent of children under five years of age were found to be underweight in the Maldives according to international standards for ascertaining health in young people. The same figures found that 6.5 percent of children were classed as overweight in the country. 20.3 percent of children in the same age group were found to be suffering from ’stunting’, a term describing children suffering growth retardation as a result of poor diet and infection.