Dr Alfred Dawes | The tale of turkey tail
Cheap American chicken is coming to Jamaica. The trade war started by President Trump has resulted in decreased exports of pork and chicken that are currently being stockpiled in freezers. As the laws of globalisation apply, this overstock will be dumped on poor countries with inefficient local production that gives importers a price advantage in spite of tariffs. Dumping of unwanted foods is not new. Just ask the Samoans.
The turkey tail is actually a gland that produces oil that the bird uses to preen its feathers. Approximately 75 per cent of the calories in turkey tail are from fat. In the 1950s, US poultry companies began to export the refuse from turkey preparation - the tails - to Pacific islands such as Samoa. The islanders abandoned their traditional diet for this cheap 'protein' source that was really pure fat. Australia and New Zealand began to export their rejected meat cuts as well, in the form of mutton flaps. These foods with poor nutritional value became 'national dishes' and were heavily consumed by the islanders.
The obesity and chronic disease epidemic grew so much that the government of Samoa took the desperate measure of banning the importation of turkey tails. However, in the age of globalisation, one cannot simply ban imports in the interest of the people. Samoa was forced to lift the ban by the World Trade Organisation and the imports returned.
Today, nine out of 10 Samoans are overweight or obese. It is one of the few countries in the world where life expectancy is decreasing. Approximately 20 per cent of the population have diabetes and that number is expected to grow to 26 per cent in 2020. Despite the trends, Samoans still consume mutton flaps and turkey tail as they have now become the staple in their diets. This is the new traditional diet.
Jamaicans are getting sicker
If you think for one moment that this could not happen in Jamaica, think again. The recent Jamaica Health and Lifestyles study confirms what we in the field have been saying for some time now ... Jamaicans are getting sicker and sicker every year.
Thirty-one point five per cent (31.5%) of Jamaicans today have hypertension. In 2001, the number was twenty point nine per cent (20.9%).
A quarter of Jamaicans are diabetic or pre-diabetic with 42 per cent of persons over age 75 suffering from the deadly disease. To put this in perspective, in 2008 only eight per cent of Jamaicans age 15 to 74 were diabetic.
More than half of Jamaicans (54 per cent) are overweight or obese. Our women are suffering more from obesity and overweight at an alarming two-thirds of the population.
These trends are not only among the wealthier Jamaicans who can afford to eat out more. In fact, it is quite the opposite where more than 70 per cent of the population reported that they had insufficient resources or access to nutritious foods. These are the persons more likely to buy cheap, carbs and fat-heavy, poor protein content foods that result in weight gain and insulin resistance. Despite the focus on sugary drinks only 28 per cent of Jamaicans drank one or more sugar-sweetened beverages once or more per day. If sugary drinks are the culprit why we gain weight, then it still would account for only half of the number of persons who are overweight and obese, assuming everyone who consumes sugar sweetened drinks is overweight.
Jamaican food has traditionally been energy dense. However, our baseline energy expenditure has also been historically higher. But our world has changed; and with it the amount of calories we need to get through the day. But we have kept the energy dense parts of our traditional diet in the form of carbohydrates and dropped the fruits and vegetables in exchange for even more cheap imports of rice, cheap meat cuts and fish back with poor nutritional value.
Jamaicans import US$700 million worth of food each year. Most of these imports are junk, sometimes masquerading as healthy foods. Cereal, low-fat foods with loads of sugar added to replace the fats, cheap juices, tons of rice and flour, and the list goes on. These foods have become our new traditional diet and they are destroying our bodies and our country. Only a few extremely wealthy individuals who import this junk are benefiting while the rest grapple with the consequences.
The current Minister of Health Dr Chris Tufton had, during his previous stint as minister of agriculture, promoted the consumption of locally grown foods rather than the unhealthy imports. Maybe it is time to incorporate his previous message in his Jamaica Moves programme. Not only can imports be unhealthy, but they destroy local production in a manner we have seen with the local dairy industry. Once we become a nation solely dependent on imported foods, we are at the mercy of the stockpiles of what is to be dumped on developing countries. The Government will not stop it because of trade rules and, in some instances, for reasons I can't state; but we can boycott these unhealthy imports.
We need to, as a nation, collectively change the way we eat. You cannot outrun a bad diet. Exercise is but a bonus. The real effort at weight loss should be in eating. Know your foods. Watch your portions. Eat local fruits and vegetables and cut down on the consumption of cheap imported foods. It may seem more expensive now but it is cheaper in the long run.
- Dr Alfred Dawes is a general, laparoscopic and weight-loss surgeon; fellow of the American College of Surgeons; senior medical officer of the Savanna-La-Mar Public General Hospital; and former president of the Jamaica Medical Doctors' Association. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com.