“Houston. We have a problem.” It is not every day that my country makes it to the international headlines given it’s one of the smallest countries in the world. But recently it has done so for all the wrong reasons and not for something I am proud of.
According to the 2015 European health report published by the World Health Organisation (WHO), the Maltese have tipped the scales as the fattest population in the European Union. 68.5 per cent of men and 59.6% of women over the age of 18 were found to be overweight by the WHO study.
You might ask why this should be of any concern to Food and Wine Gazette. Alas it does because obesity is one of society’s greatest problems and has implications way beyond the food world. But the problem also lies in lack of education, awareness and a certain naivety which the food industry banks on to profit from the masses.
We recently read that the Maltese government had announced measures to disallow tuck shops at school from selling soft-drinks. This is of course a step in the right direction and one that needs to be applauded. But we feel this might be too little and too late because the problem is going to hit the country’s health system like a tsunami.
We therefore urge the authorities to look around at other countries and invest heavily in an education campaign because failure to do so will not only affect the health of the people in question but also promises to cripple the health system in future.
And while this issue touches Malta and the Maltese today like never before, it can easily be any country’s problem tomorrow. The reasons for the alarming increase in overweight people and obesity vary.
But what is the reason why we are here in the first place? From the lack of home cooking to reliance on ready made meals, processed foods, sugary soda-drinks and sweets, there’s a myriad of reasons why gaining weight in today’s society is so easy.
First we lead a very sedentary lifestyle. Many of us fail to move enough during the day because of our jobs or because we are too lazy to exercise or walk. Second, we tend to take marketing messages for granted without questioning what we are being told. Thus if we are told that something is healthy we take it at face value without questioning whether this is the case. Third, we do not eat properly, either because we do not have the correct information or because we do not bother to make changes to our daily diet.
You would think that an island in the middle of the Mediterranean would have the perfect diet. Fish, olive oil, excellent vegetables, what else would you want?
But if we take a deeper look, the diet, for many is far from perfect. Many will quickly point their finger at ‘pastizzi’, the quintessential delicious fast-food which is available in every corner of the island at prices which are ridiculously cheap. And while they are a caloric bomb, it would be simple to just attribute the problem to these pastry delicacies and ignore other realities that are compounding a problem that could bring the health system to its knees in future.
And for this reason, the government has a duty and an obligation to educate people even if this ruffles the feathers of certain influential lobbies.
We have a few suggestions on how each one of us can slowly start to make a difference. We just need to raise awareness about the problems.
The Food and Wine Gazette manifesto for tackling the problem
- Carbohydrates are necessary, particularly when you exercise. But an excess of carbs is definitely not good for your weight. Be careful with carbs. A combination of pasta, bread and potatoes at the same time is no good.
- Focus on quality not quantity. Maltese love their buffets. Maybe they need to read Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential which exposes why hotels and restaurants love to serve buffets (it is a good way of reducing food waste, which is not bad per se, but it encourages binge eating).
- Supermarket chains have a tendency to force us to buy things we don’t necessarily need. They are not good for our weight or health.
- Go back to a real Mediterranean diet focusing on the freshness of ingredients.
- Decrease portion sizes – not only at home but also in restaurants.
- Cook whenever you can. Only by cooking will you know what goes into your plates. Unless you cook a dessert, you might never imagine the amount of sugar that goes into a cake.
- Read the labels not once but twice. Look carefully. You will be surprised that what you think is healthy is anything but.
- The food industry has a way of generating addictions and cravings by using sugar, salt and fat. If you make it a habit to check the ingredients you will be surprised to see the use of salt even in desserts or sugar in savoury products.
- Sugary soda or soft-drinks are the enemy when you are attempting to lose weight. They are sugary and they create a craving for more. Giving them to children at a very young age creates a long-term problem for them because these drinks are addictive. Remember there is nothing better than water.
- Just because you are told that diet drinks do not have any calories does not mean that they are not fattening. It’s quite the opposite.
- Sport is obviously important but if you are not the type to practice any sport, then just get out of your chair or car and walk whenever you can.
- If you want to read two great books about the subject Food and Wine Gazette recommends the following two, Salt, Sugar, Fat, How the Food Giants Hooked us and Fast Food Nation.
If you are reading this, then you are interested in food like us. It is easy for all of us to be smug and to just sit and do nothing. But each one of us has an obligation to help raise awareness about the problem. If we can each convince just one person to change his or her habits we would have done a good deed.
Although this is an advert for Brita filtered water it has a powerful message about sugar in soft-drinks.