Our Health and Wellness Minister (yes, that is the new name of the Ministry – the “Wellness” has been added) believes in prevention. He is working on a “Wellness Agenda” this year. Our health services are overwhelmed, overused, under-staffed and under-resourced. Many of Jamaicans’ ailments are what we call “lifestyle diseases,” caused by a bad diet and exercise – or rather, lack of it. They can be prevented if we change our habits and alter our lifestyle. So prevention is better than cure. There can be no argument with that!
These habits start young. Last December, Minister Tufton took measures to reduce the availability of sweet, sugary foods and drinks in schools. A National School Nutrition Policy is under consideration, as discussed in the Minister’s presentation to Parliament on May 8 (you can read the whole thing here).
So now, the Ministry is taking aim at another substance that is highly prevalent in the Jamaican diet: salt. The chef at our local cookshop is really heavy-handed with this stuff, despite my husband’s lecturing him to use less. Eating from restaurants, we don’t always know how much salt is used (although we can usually tell when it’s too much, or very little). Rastafarians don’t use any salt at all in their cooking but add other seasonings instead (this is quite possible to do). Our national dish, ackee and saltfish is of course quite salty!
One of the problems we have (and I know this is not just a Jamaican issue) is that we eat a great deal of what I call “junk food” – fast food such as pizza and a certain brand of fried chicken, which is hugely popular among young and old. One single piece of that popular chicken can contain over one gram of salt, which is about half the recommended daily intake. Not to mention the fat!
The other problem is that most of us eat a lot of processed foods. If you look at the labels, you will see that virtually everything has salt (sodium) in it. The answer is, of course: cook more at home, where you can regulate your salt intake; eat more fresh vegetables and fruit; check the labels on your packaged foods; exercise regularly, and drink plenty of water.
Now, one-third of the population of Jamaica aged 15 to 74 years old has hypertension (high blood pressure), which can lead to a stroke or heart attack. These happen suddenly, and often there are no symptoms. High salt intake is the culprit.
Here’s the Ministry of Health and Wellness press release on a new study to be undertaken.
Health and Wellness Ministry to Investigate Salt Consumption in Jamaica
KINGSTON, Jamaica. 7 June 2019: The Ministry of Health and Wellness is shortly to begin a study on the Salt Consumption Practices of Jamaicans.
The study, which is to be conducted in partnership with the Caribbean Institute for Health Research at the University of the West Indies and cost an estimated $13.5 million, is intended to provide contextual information for the implementation of a National Salt Reduction Programme to reduce blood pressure and associated cardiovascular disease.
Minister of Health and Wellness, Dr. Christopher Tufton made the revelation at the June 3 (2019) opening ceremony of the regional stakeholders’ workshop on strategies to reduce salt consumption for the prevention and control of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in the Caribbean.
“The project, which, among other things, is to capture baseline data on salt consumption as well as salt content in packaged and restaurant foods, is also in alignment with the Ministry’s National Strategic and Action Plan for Prevention and Control of NCDs, and the mandate of our Food Industry Task Force,” the Minister noted.
His announcement comes against the background of concerning statistics for hypertension (high blood pressure) among Jamaicans. Quoting from the Jamaica Health and Lifestyle Survey for 2016/2017, Tufton told his audience at the UWI Regional Headquarters in Kingston that:
- 1 in 3 Jamaicans are hypertensive – 35.8% women and 31.7% men, according to the Jamaica Health and Lifestyle Survey for 2016/17;
- Four out of every 10 Jamaicans with hypertension are unaware of their status – 60% men and 26% women; and
- More and more Jamaicans aged 15 to 74 years old are developing hypertension. In 2017, 31.5% of persons in this age group had high blood pressure compared to 20.9% in 2001.
“To say that Jamaica has a significantly high blood pressure problem is no understatement, and even more alarming is that we are not alone. High blood pressure in our people is a Caribbean-wide problem; and it is one that threatens to become even more of a challenge, unless we address the risk factors, including our high salt intake,” he said.
The World Health Organisation recommends a daily intake of salt (which is 40% sodium and 60% chloride) of less than 5 grams (or 5,000 mg) or some 2 grams (or 2,000 mg) per day of sodium. This helps to reduce blood pressure and the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Still, data from the region shows that consumption has been exceeding that recommendation. The 2011 Barbados Salt Intake Study, for example, reveals that:
- Men 27-50 years old have a mean daily sodium intake of 4,313 mg while men aged 51-73 years have a mean sodium intake of 2,653 mg; and
- Women aged 25-50 years have a mean sodium intake of 2,897 mg and those 51-73 years old, 2,126 mg.
In addition to the study, Tufton said a number of other initiatives are coming to help to counter the salt problem in Jamaica. They include the development of National School Nutrition Standards to support the implementation of the nutrition-related aspects of the National School Nutrition Policy that is to go to Cabinet for approval.
“Over the long term, they are intended to reduce obesity rates in the school-aged population, aided in part by a strategy to increase the use of locally produced goods, and minimize the amount of processed food in meals and snacks offered by schools,” Tufton said.
This is important given that current high levels of salt intake are not only due to adding salt at the table. Referencing the 2009 PAHO/WHO policy statement, the Minister indicated that “in most populations, by far the largest amount of dietary salt comes from ready-made meals and pre-prepared foods, including bread, processed meats, and even breakfast cereals.”
It is against this background that he also urged a collaborative response to treating with salt consumption, particularly with increasing blood pressure as “the leading risk factor for death globally and the second leading risk for disability by causing heart disease, stroke, and kidney failure”.