Virgin Islands Health Topics

An alarming number of Virgin Islander are overweight or obese. In the year 2000, thiry seven percent of those who participated in the Virgin Islands' Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System Survey (BRFSS) were overweight. That number represents a jump of 13 percent since 1989.

Additionally, 21 percent of Virgin Islanders were obese, based on their body mass index - a method of calculating weight and height. To calculate your BMI, click here.

Overweight is the excess amount of body weight that includes muscle, bone, fat, and water. Obesity is the excess accumulation of body fat. One can be overweight without being obese: a body builder who has a lot of muscle, for example. However, for practical purposes, most people who are overweight are also obese.

According to Julia Sheen Aaron, director of the V.I. Department of Health's Chronic Disease Program, poor diet, obesity and a sedentary lifestyle are major risk factors for a variety of ailments that rank as top killers in the territory. They include heart disease, stroke and some cancers, along with diabetes and high blood pressure.

Although experts recommend the need to eat five servings of fruits and vegetables daily, only 28 percent of those participating in the survey were doing so.
Reference: Blackburn, 2003.

"At the root of the chronic diseases is the need for good nutrition and physical activity."
Phyllis Wallace, Deputy Health Commissioner and Director of the V.I. Office of Minority Health, 2003.

Thirty four percent of those surveyed said they did not engage in physical activity of any kind, with 26 percent reporting that they exercised only occasionally.

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There is also a trend among children in the Virgin Islands towards an increase in overweight and obesity, that may indicate that childhood Type 2 diabetes will become a significant health problem in the USVI, as it is on the mainland United States. Lifestyle factors such as fast food and physical inactivity contribute to higher obesity rates in children. Careful monitoring by parents of their children's diets and physical activity levels will be an important aspect of the effort to prevent childhood Type 2 diabetes in our community.
Source for this section: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Framingham Children's Study suggests that one reason children are obese is that they have been substituting milk with soft drinks, the use of which has risen 300 percent over the past 20 years.
Reference: Associated Press, 2004

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Culture is the religious, social and behavioral rules that govern the way we live. Cultural food patterns are passed from one generation to the next. Culture is learned and, therefore, can be relearned when it comes to lifestyle habits. Body size is a factor of culture. People who are larger are considered powerful, and being larger is better when it comes to protection.

In all cultures, eating habits begin when we are very young. In the Virgin Islands, it is thought that having a chubby baby means that the baby is healthy. As children grow older, they're encouraged to eat everything on their plates. The average diet in the Virgin Islands is very high in carbohydrates which include: rice, potatoes, macaroni and cheese, and potato stuffing. Calories from all these carbohydrates add to our weight if they are not worked off by some form of physical activity.

Another factor in some communities, like the Virgin Islands, is the pervasiveness of fast food high in salt, sugar and cholesterol, especially in low-income communities, and especially in areas frequented by children and young people. It is very difficult for our students to walk to and from school without passing a convenience store where there are opportunities to have sugary, high-sodium and high-fat foods.
Reference: Bronner, 2003

Obesity can cause acid reflux, which can make a person more susceptible to esophageal cancer. Excess weight is also associated with gallstone formation, which increases the risk of gallbladder cancer; osteoarthritis; and depression.
Source: Centers for Disease Control

We have set up a society where it's difficult for people to eat right and get physical activity. People work long hours that leave little time for exercise or cooking healthy meals. We rely on cars or busses to get around. Sedentary activities like watching television or using the computer have become more common.

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Simply put, being overweight or obese results from an energy imbalance. This involves eating too many calories and not getting enough physical activity. Body weight is the result of genes, metabolism, behavior, environment, culture, and socioeconomic status. Behavior and environment play a large role causing people to be overweight and obese. These are the greatest areas for prevention and treatment actions.

Our bodies need calories for daily functions such as breathing, digestion, and daily activities. Weight gain occurs when calories consumed exceed this need. Physical activity plays a key role in energy balance because it uses up calories consumed. To lose weight, you must use more calories than you take in.
(Source: American Cancer Society)

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While the focus of the media is so often on weight loss, people concerned about health should focus on healthier eating habits and physical fitness for a lifetime.

With the approval of your health care provider, set a reasonable weight loss goal, make a diet and exercise plan, and start taking charge of your weight. Ask your health care provider for a referral to a registered dietitian to help you make healthier choices.

Studies show that a healthy lifestyle, which includes balanced meals and regular physical activity, can play a role in reducing the risks of several chronic diseases and premature death. Obesity can cause acid reflux, which can make a person more susceptible to esophageal cancer. Excess weight is also associated with gallstone formation, which increases the risk of gallbladder cancer; osteoarthritis; and depression.
Source: Centers for Disease Control

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Eating is undoubtedly one of life's greatest pleasures. The sight, smell, taste, and texture of food are just a few characteristics that entice us to eat what we eat. History, religion, culture, friends, family and the environment also influence our food choices. But we also need to base our food choices on nutrition and health.

A healthy diet provides the right balance of carbohydrates, fats, protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals. This balance can be obtained from eating a variety of foods that are available, affordable, and enjoyable. Knowing how to select and plan a healthy meal can be important for staying healthy and/or improving your health.

It is important to read food labels for nutritional information and to eat in moderation. Avoid anything with high fructose corn syrup, as it is an extremely refined type of sugar and high in calories.

JUST ONE COOKIE? The calories in one small chocolate chip cookie is equivalent to walking briskly for 10 minutes.

Virgin Islanders are Smart About Breast Feeding!
Establishing healthful patterns of food consumption can begin at the very beginning - when an infant is breast-fed. About 80 percent of mothers in the Virgin Islands breast-feed their babies - one of the highest rates in the nation! This is highly encouraged by the Nutrition Education Program and the national Women, Infants and Children supplemental nutrition program (WIC).

When breast-feeding ends, the people who oversee the child's food consumption must take responsibility for a healthful eating program. This includes not just mothers and fathers, but aunts, uncles, grandparents, godparents, teachers - anyone who influences the child's eating habits.

WIC officials have plans to increase the proportion of fruits and vegetables in its food programs. They hope to have more salad bars in schools - with recipes to give the staff the ability to create palatable choices.
(Reference: Thomas, 2003)

WHAT TO EAT? In order to make the right choices, the USDA and Department of Health and Human Services have Dietary Guidelines. Or, use recommendations from The Food Guide Pyramid, To review some popular diet plans, click here.

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Regular physical activity not only helps to control weight, it is good for overall health. It decreases the risk for colon cancer, diabetes, and high blood pressure. It also contributes to healthy bones, muscles, and joints: reduces falls among the elderly, and helps to relieve the pain of arthritis. Physical activity does not have to be strenuous to be beneficial. Moderate physical activity, such as 30 minutes of brisk walking five or more times a week, also has health benefits.

NOTE: Consult with your health care provider before starting a vigorous exercise program if you have ever had heart trouble or high blood pressure or suffer from chest pains, dizziness or fainting, arthritis, or if you are over age 40 (men) or 50 (women).

The belief that physical activity is limited to exercise or sports may keep people from being active. Another myth is that physical activity must be vigorous to achieve health benefits. Physical activity is any bodily movement that results in an expenditure of energy. Some examples of physical activities that burn calories are: construction work, waiting tables, washing your car, gardening.

You don't need special skills or training to be physically active. Walking is a great way to be active.

Activities can be split into several short periods such as 10 minutes 3 times a day instead of 30 minutes once a day. You should select activities that you ENJOY and can fit into your daily life. It may take time to incorporate more activity into your daily life. Don't get discouraged if at first you miss a day or two; just keep trying and do your best to make it a regular part of your life. You will soon realize how good it feels to be physically active and fit.
Source: Centers for Disease Control

Make fitness a priority - commit to be fit!

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Caution: Walking on our curving mountain roads may be dangerous, especially if you wear headphones, making it difficult to hear cars coming up behind you. If necessary, drive to a safer place to walk or jog. For example, on St. Thomas there are some popular places that people walk:

  • The road around the airport runway.
  • Havensight Mall, parallel to the dock.
  • Yacht Haven Grande, boardwalk.
  • Magens Bay, on the beach or road parallel to it.
  • The National Park area located in Red Hook.
  • UVI soccer field.

On St. John there are numerous hiking trails within the National Park, or around town in Coral Bay.

On St. Croix, good places to walk are:

  • Alumina, D.C. Canegata Ball Park
  • The Beast

When you start an exercise program, ask for support from friends and family; likewise, support the people in your life who are trying to be physically active. Many forms of physical activity can be social, allowing you to converse and spend time with family or friends or to develop new relationships.

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The V.I. Government can help your kids get active. In St. Croix and in St. Thomas, the V.I. Department of Housing, Parks and Recreation, provides free and safe physical activities for children after school. With the permission of parents, children can participate in sports such as baseball, basketball, soccer and volleyball, boxing, track and field, volleyball. Go to the bottom of this page for more information.

Be a role model for your children:

  • Set aside a day of the week for physical activity with your family, and then gradually increase the number of days.
  • At home, turn off the television, computer and video games, and go out for a walk with your kids.
  • Pass up the super-sized portions at fast food restaurants, and reduce sizes of portions at home.
  • Slow down and take time to taste your food.
  • Avoid using food as a reward or as a source of entertainment.
  • Involve kids in preparing meals. They are often more willing to try a new fruit or vegetable if they are involved in the preparation.
  • Teach them to read food labels in the store and let them help plan what to eat.
  • Introduce simple changes gradually.

Source: Joslin Center (

Think of a lifestyle change as gaining control, not making sacrifices. Eat smart. Play hard!

More Information in the Virgin Islands about Preventing or Treating Overweight or Obesity:
WIC - WOMEN, INFANTS AND CHILDREN (supplemental nutrition program)

St. Thomas
28-29 Norre Gade, or WIC Clinics at Tutu Park Mall, Knud Hansen Complex, Schnieder Hospital

St. Croix
WIC Clinics - Frederiksted Health Center, Sunny Isle, or Golden Rock
340-772-1808   340-773-9157

St. John
Morris deCastro Clinic

For info on WIC Program and afterschool activities

To register your child for after school activities, call:
V.I. Housing Parks and Recreation
St. Croix 340-719-9613   St. Thomas 340-774-2640


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
, Obesity Recommendations

Health Info for African Americans


American Cancer Society (2004)

Associated Press (2004). Dairy foods reduce risk of childhood obesity, studies show. As cited in the Virgin Islands Daily News, March 5, p.25.

Blackburn, J. (2003). Alarming number of V.I. residents obese, study finds. , April 9.

Bronner, Y. (2003). Speakers: childhood obesity needn’t be destiny. As cited by Thomas, T.,, June 20.

Joslin Diabetes Center (2004).

Thomas, T. (2003). Conference to examine childhood obesity., June 13.