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An issue of some weight

A World Health Organisation report recently placed Malta at the top of the list of Europe’s most overweight nations

29 December 2015, 7:23am
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
There is a certain irony in being called ‘obese’ by a newspaper printed in arguably the most overweight country in the world. That said, the article in The New York Times about Malta’s weight problems does touch on a few home truths about the state of our nation’s health.

It is true, for instance, that a World Health Organisation report recently placed Malta at the top of the list of Europe’s most overweight nations: bulging past its nearest rival, the Czech Republic, and outweighing Italy, Greece and Spain by a wide margin. Nor did the report stop there: it also found “alarming” rates of smoking and alcohol consumption, which could mean that the next generation may live shorter lives.

On home soil, another report published by the Today Public Policy Institute pointed out that Malta has one of the highest obesity rates in the EU (22 per cent), as well as the highest rate of childhood obesity in the world, with over 25% being pre-obese or obese.

Also this month, the International Diabetes Federation said Malta had the highest estimated national prevalence of diabetes for people aged 20 to 79, at nearly 14 percent, of 56 European countries it surveyed. Deaths from some forms of heart disease are more than twice as high compared to the European Union average, according to the bloc’s statistics office.

Apart from the obvious health considerations, there is also the expense of maintaining a free health service in the face of rising obesity related conditions.

To come up with a solution, however, we need to be more accurate in diagnosing the ailment. It would help, therefore, if articles on the subject were not so replete with mistakes and misrepresentations.

The NYT observes that: “At breakfast, customers line up for pastizzi, diamond-shaped pastries made with butter and lard and stuffed with ricotta-style cheese or mushy peas and often sold at small, family-run shops.”

Certainly it is true that pastizzi are both cheap and popular in Malta. But to describe the snack as a ‘typical breakfast’ for most of the population is clearly nonsense. Even if it were true, it would not be so different from the typical Italian breakfast, consisting of a ‘cornetto’ (croissant), or the Spanish snack ‘churros’. Like pastizzi, both are pastries with over-rich fillings – coated in sugar, in the case of churros – and neither is particularly conducive to weight loss.

Likewise, our nation’s weight problems cannot be attributed to our over-reliance on pasta and bread as a staple diet. Other Mediterranean countries consume just as much of both. Italy alone consumes considerably more pasta than all the others. 

On one issue, however, the New York Times is correct. Culturally, we do have a tendency to overeat. Portions in Maltese restaurants are considerably larger than their equivalents elsewhere… even across the Channel in nearby Sicily. And there is still a tendency (albeit fading) among parents to interpret chubbiness in children as a sign of good health. An overweight child is regarded as a child that has been cared for; excessively, perhaps, but far preferable to a child that has been neglected.

This reasoning does exist, and might explain why obesity continues to be so high among Maltese children today, despite our increased awareness. But there are others.

Ironically, fast food is a far likelier cause of our country’s weight problems. Clare Gerada, a London-based GP, is more perceptive when she observes that: “Malta’s greatest challenge comes from the usual sources: addiction to sugar, fast food and little time to prepare the right foods or time for regular exercise – the latter point made worse by Malta’s reliance on cars.”

Too little is said in the NYT article about inactive lifestyles, and how these may contribute to our obesity. It cannot be a coincidence that Maltese school-children are exposed to among the least number of school hours per week dedicated to sports and physical exercise in all of Europe.

The Today Public Policy Institute also observed, inter alia, that “Malta is the least physically active country in the world, with 71.9 per cent of Maltese people qualifying as inactive”; that “Maltese children are the least physically active in the EU. Only one in four is physically active”; and that “hours spent watching television by Maltese children are among the highest in the EU – nearly half watch television for three or more hours on weekdays.”

The TPPI report indicates that public transport may be a factor: “There are many environmental factors that impinge on our lifestyle and our health; not only have these been neglected by our road and urban planners, but our living and transport environment has been systematically degraded to the extent that people are not inclined to opt for active mobility options but use their car as default transport, even for short journeys.” 

To be fair, it must be pointed out that efforts are under way on all these fronts. Some, like public transport reform, remain elusive. But controls have been placed on foods available in schools, and more time is now allotted for physical activity.

It is clear, however, that this will remain an issue of some weight for years to come.

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A Happy New Year to all our readers! 

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