Political leaders and ministers from Pacific nations are in Palau attending the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), its 45th annual meeting, to discuss mainly the threat climate change has on the low-lying island nations and the overfishing problem in the Pacific.
The 15 members of the PIF include several countries made up of atolls that barely rise one meter above sea level.
The theme of this year’s forum is ‘The Ocean: Life and Future’.
While climate change has always been a continuing hot topic in many countries, but most especially among the Pacific nations, another critical issue brought for discussion in the forum is about health – specifically the high incidence of obesity among the islanders – under the topic of non-communicable diseases (NCDs).
Palau’s President and PIF chairman, Tommy Remengesau Jr., said that he was determined to change the unhealthy lifestyle choices that have made his region the fattest in the world.
A recent study by British medical journal The Lancet found that five of the top 10 fattest countries in the world were Pacific island nations, with Tonga leading the rankings due to an obesity rate of more than 50 per cent.
Official statistics show NCDs account for about 75 per cent of all deaths in the Pacific, and diabetes rates exceed 40 per cent in some island nations.
“Our ancestors took advantage of the local produce here, vegetables and fish. Now we’re relying too much on imported goods, canned goods, which are giving you high levels of sugar, salt and fat,” Remengesau lamented.
He said people in the Pacific had long viewed copious amounts of food as a sign of prosperity, leading to an attitude that bigger is better.
Remengesau, a relatively lean 58-year old man, said teenagers were now dying of diabetes in the Pacific and it was imperative that the lifestyle mistakes of recent decades were not repeated.
“No islander will never say that a fat man is a sick man, they will say ‘wow, he’s a strong man, he’s got a lot of food and he’s living well’,” he said.
It is this cultural misconception, this mindset that Remengesau wants changed.