Tax fast foods, says doctor about Malta’s obesity problem

Tax foods that create our obesity epidemic and subsidise healthy food, says doctor who researched Malta's fat problem.

Obesity is a growing problem (pun intended) all over the world.

Unfortunately, the Maltese population weighs in at the heavier end of the scales, and notwithstanding the health costs of the obesity epidemic, the financial cost on the country's coffers is in the region of €78 million.

The proportion of overweight or obese children in Malta is 29.5% - no other country has a proportion above 20%, as the 'Health at a Glance: Europe' report shows.

But Daniel Sammut, a GP and co-author of the chunkily titled 'Audit of the diagnosis and management of adult obesity in a Maltese general practice' - a study recently published in the Malta Medical Journal - is none too impressed by the proliferation of fad diets on the island.

"Only Weightwatchers has some scientific evidence behind it. The Department of Health Promotion recommends a Mediterranean diet. Such a diet involves eating five times a day, a daily intake of five portions of vegetable and fruit, five glasses of water and exercise five times a week. All the tablets and shakes either do not work or are harmful. For example, fat burners may increase blood pressure and heart rate," Sammut says.

And he finds agreement from personal trainer Richard Geres, who has helped thousands of people lose weight through his person fitness regimes and regulated diets.

"Fad diets do not work... while basically any diet works in the short-term, due to the reduction of calorie intake, the problem is that they are not sustainable over the long term. Therefore people on these diets revert to their previous problematic eating habits and therefore regain the weight again over time."

Geres firmly believes that education is the root cause of Malta's obesity problem.

"After having personally interviewed over 4,000 clients over the last few years, I have come to the conclusion that the only solution to our national, and global, obesity problem is education that will lead people to make wiser food choices in the long run. People claim they know what they should eat, but they don't really.

"The greatest challenges are overcoming the addiction of sugar, wheat and junk food, and time availability to plan and prepare the right foods, and find time for regular exercise. When we are short of time, stressed and emotional, access to the wrong foods is just too easy for our rational brain to say 'no'!" Geres says.

Incorporating an exercise regime into daily life is easier said than done. Nipping out for a quick jog after a days' work does not sound quite as appealing lolloping on the sofa with a beer and a burger. The good news is that there is some evolutionary science behind our languid approach to modern life, Geres points out.

"Since we are energy conservers by nature, exercise goes against our instinctive nature. We therefore need some kind of commitment to stick to it for long enough to make a difference. Therefore, joining an exercise group, finding an exercise buddy or hiring a personal trainer are good strategies to increase accountability, and as a result, programme adherence."

Dr Sammut, on the other hand, rules out having to complete a full parkour course on a daily basis.

"One can simply walk to work or park 15 minutes away in order to hit the recommended daily exercise quota. A total of 30 minutes walking or swimming per day is enough. There is no need to join a gym."

Sammut thinks that the government needs to start aiming slightly below people's bulging waistlines, by laying siege to their pockets.

"Fast food is always cheaper than healthy food. The former should be taxed, while the latter subsidised. The EU and the Maltese government are putting lots of pressure on women to work outside of the home. This will mean less time for them to buy fresh food, less time to cook, less time to exercise. I foresee that this will further compound the problem of obesity in them and their families."

Another study of 200 three-year-old children and their parents randomly selected from the Maltese public registry found that parents with a high Body Mass Index are more likely to have children who are also overweight. Tallying with Sammut's findings, the study shows that parents' knowledge on dietary issues plays a significant role in determining both the parents' and the child's body weight.

More in Health
avatar
For the record, I also agree that physical activity guidelines can be met outside the gym. Any activity helps, although some are more beneficial than others. What matters mostly is that the activity chosen must be practical and enjoyable so it can be maintained long-term and yield a lasting effect.
avatar
For the record, I also agree that physical activity guidelines can be met outside the gym. Any activity helps, although some are more beneficial than others. What matters mostly is that the activity chosen must be practical and enjoyable so it can be maintained long-term and yield a lasting effect.
avatar
Instead of increasing tax on fast food we should lower the prices of healthy food. The only reason I buy pastizzi to eat is because by the last week of the month that's all I can afford.