Welcome to glutton island
The national obesity campaign launched by the Health Promotion Unit in 2010 had noted that in Europe an estimated 50 per cent of adults aged between 55-65 years are overweight or obese (10-20 per cent in the case of men and 10-25 per cent in the case of women).
The problem also existed among children with the International Obesity Task Force estimating that, in Europe, 14 million children aged between five and seven are overweight and three million are obese.
The cost of dealing with obese people is big. In fact, it is estimated that it takes between one and five per cent of the total health budget.
Malta is reported to have one of the highest incidence of overweight people in Europe. The Health Behaviour in School Children Study found an alarming high proportion of Maltese children to be overweight. About 15 per cent of 13-years-old are above the 95th weight centile and, hence, obese.
The European Health Interview Survey found that 36.6 per cent of adults were overweight and a further 22.3 per cent obese.
The reason that so many people are overweight is simple: they are eating far too much and exercising far too little. We are a nation of gluttons.
It seems that most of us, including the clergy, have forgotten that gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins. The solution would be for all those people worried about their bulges to say no. But, of course, that is far easier said than done!
Saying that, today, is almost heresy. Fat is now not only a feminist issue, it has become a bastion of political correctness. I can almost hear people calling me a fattist, cruelly passing judgement on someone’s appearance when they can do little about it.
It is therefore time to point out some alarmingly obvious facts that are ignored by the mealy-mouthed and those whose mouths are either full of junk food or just talking junk.
My concern at seeing so many massive bottoms wobbling down Republic Street, Valletta, on my way to the clinic in the morning and on my way out is not that I want to mock my fatter fellow citizens. They face increased risks of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, such as myocardial infection and ischemic stroke, higher risk of developing cancer, gallstones, narcolepsy, back trouble, arthritis. So I am merely pointing out serious medical problems.
These afflictions, needlessly, cost millions of euros to the health authorities.
I have often heard people claim that their bulging paunch or tree trunk thighs are the result of a heavy bone structure or slow metabolism. “It’s in the family”. So how come the proportion of obese Maltese has increased so rapidly when it takes centuries for our genes to change?
Scientific studies show that, in the vast majority of cases, how fat we are is a direct consequence of how many calories we take in.
This is a wholly new problem in the history of the world. We have beaten one of the most enduring challenges to human life – starvation – even if, unfortunately, this is still present in some far off African countries such as Kenya and Ethiopia. Alas, our triumph over starvation has become a threat to our health.
So why do so many of us eat so much?
Firstly, it must be said in our defence that there is a lot more temptation than ever before. Modern technology has been stunningly successful in creating diversity and abundance. Unfortunately, like all animals, humans are designed to assume that the supply is scarce rather that there would be unlimited, highly calorific food.
In primordial times, people used to exercise a lot, including to escape the jaws of sabre toothed tigers or some other mammoths. In contrast, today, the nearest we may get to sweating is when we fear we will not manage to get in front of the TV in time to watch our favourite programme after getting our snack from the kitchen.
Naturally, industry exploits our instinctive tendency to overeat fats and sugars by presenting them as “healthy” or “nourishing”. Having overeaten, we then resent our shapeless bodies and so we are offered diet products to buy.
The answer lies in the mind. More people feel dissatisfied and unhappy, with far higher numbers suffering depression and compulsions, including eating disorders.
Unhappy people are desperate for a quick fix – same as drug addicts – to make them less miserable. Sugary foods, like chocolate, act like a drug that temporarily raises spirits.
Our aspirations have far outstripped what is possible for society to deliver, with women being especially vulnerable. They expect so much more from relationships with lovers and husbands than ever before and they are encouraged to reach for the sky at work. When neither can match up to these over-stimulated expectations, they feel disappointed and many blame themselves.
These problems exist for the most successful as well. No sooner do we achieve a goal than we move the goalposts to create a new, more difficult one, leaving ourselves permanently dissatisfied, always yearning for what we do not have; a nation of wannabes.
The moral is clear: unless you scale down your ambitions to something more realistic you will continue to use food (or transfer to another addiction, such as alcohol or gambling or sex) to sweeten the pill of disappointment and your body will continue to grow.
So, yes, we are a nation of gluttons. Also contributing to this are the lifestyles we are living that consign so many of us to misery and depression, temporarily banished by a fix of food.