January 11, 2004

A sick society as obesity soars

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In the-mid 1990s, a Scottish former junkie author exploded out of Leith in Edinburgh. Irvine Welsh was something different – Roddy Doyle on speed.


Like Doyle, he wrote in a thick working class vernacular. While Doyle created Barrytown, Welsh went back to the rough Easter Road in Edinburgh – home to Hibs. Socialist leader James Connolly was born nearby.

In Leith, Welsh created Trainspotting, the brilliant novel about four young skangers, Renton, Sickboy, Spud and Begbie. Of all the characters, Begbie was the most realistic and the scariest, the quintessential psychopath, the hardest hard chaw on the estate, a man who would glass you as soon as he’d shake your hand. In the inevitable film, Robert Carlyle brilliantly played Begbie. And Carlyle’s Begbie “hadn’t a pick on him”.
When I read Trainspotting, my Begbie was always scrawny,wiry, contorted,unstable and extremely violent. Most of all, he was skinny.

Growing up in Dun Laoghaire, I remember all the hard men were sinewy, scrawny lads, hence the local description “more meat on a seagull”. The reason was simple: they were undernourished. Perched on the church wall in the town were skinny, arseless lads, spitting and smoking Majors. The young wans, despite a couple of babies,were the same.

Today, Dun Laoghaire’s hard men are fat. Rolls of flab strain the Liverpool away strip. Double chins are de rigeur and little piggy eyes are squeezed into sockets among the flab. Gravity has got the better of the youngwans, as their corpulent bums, like two puppies in a bag, make unsightly bids for freedom over their entirely inappropriate hipsters.

Yes, Ireland is getting fat and, more importantly, poor Ireland is getting fat quicker. According to the Institute of European Food Studies in Dublin, over a third of all Europeans are overweight and the Irish are the third fattest race in Europe, behind the Germans and the British.The institute’s latest survey (www.iaso.org/newsletter/p7spring99.htm) claims that between 10 per cent and 14 per cent of Irish people are obese.

We are not alone: obesity is now forecast by the World Health Organisation to be public health enemy number 1 worldwide for the next generation. (http://www.who.org/)

In 2000, for the first time in history, the number of overweight humans matched the number of underweight. There are 1 billion overweight people in the world and 300 million of them are obese. Obesity is calculated by a ratio of weight to height. So for example, someone five foot two tall is classed as obese if he weighs 12 stone 8lb or more. Someone who is six foot two is obese at 16 stone 6lb or over.

The US is the world leader in fatties. Some 64 per cent of Americans are classed as overweight. This figure is up from 47 per cent in 1980.

More disturbingly, some 9 million Americans are now categorised as “morbidly obese” – more than seven stone overweight.The trend in the US is fairly clear: once a society gets fat, it gets progressively fatter and more unhealthy. Obesity leads to 300,000 early deaths in the US. No other condition is responsible for as many deaths other than smoking. In the main, we are talking here about heart conditions, blood pressure problems and diabetes.

Many who have seen our Irish- American cousins waddle around Killarney might not be surprised by the US figures. But did you know that many African women are overweight or obese? Fifteen per cent of Kenyan women are overweight, against 12 per cent who are underweight. In Tanzania the figures are 28 per cent overweight to 9 per cent underweight.

In famine-threatened Zimbabwe, 26 per cent of adult women are overweight and only 5 per cent underweight. The figures from the WHO are startling: 71 per cent of Egyptian women are overweight, as are 52 per cent of Turks; 29 per cent of urban Chinese children are now overweight.

Why is this happening all over the world now? Why in rich countries are the poor getting fatter quicker? And what are the implications for our health services and our finances?

In the US, the main culprit appears to be changes in lifestyle. People are working harder and do not have time for family meals cooked at home. Instead, people are eating takeaways or preheated TVdinners, or eating out.

Meals cooked at home have, on average, half the calories of restaurant meals. So as traditional family routines are broken, we are getting fatter. Obviously a lack of exercise, suburbanisation and the related dependency on the car, along with sedentary deskjobs, all contribute as well.

In poorer countries these trends are just beginning. Poorer countries which have historically experienced food shortages and famines appear to have a “thrifty” gene which predisposes people to eat more and store fat when food is available.This is evident in Pacific Islanders and, according to theWHO, some central Asians.

Another theory suggests that undernourished babies in the womb appear “programmed” to overeat during periods of abundance.

Who is getting fat here? An excellent article in a recent issue of the Economist made the point that the only group of people anywhere in the world who actually lost weight in the 1990s were rich white Brazilian women. In contrast, poor people in the west are getting fatter quicker. This is because the price of food has slid since 1990, mainly due to new technology in mass food processing, discount selling in supermarkets and ownbrand supermarket produce.

Fást food, whose price has fallen even more, is becoming the staple of many poorer families. It is cheaper to go to McDonald’s than bother with shopping and cooking. New brands of cheaper food use more fat substitutes, additives and sugar to sell themselves.The overproduction of food has forced the food industry into a processing war, dramatically increasing our additive intake.

Since 1990, 116,000 new food products have been introduced in the US. For these to sell, they have to be cheap and tasty. Humans have an instinctive liking for sugar.Think about babies and young children here.

Some surveys suggest that certain food changes our mood and that tasty fatty foods are irresistible to many of us. In the global battle for food profitability, smart scientists employed by the big food companies experiment with the most tasty, addictive and in many cases unhealthy combinations. So, as the price of food has fallen, the poor have not spent less on it, but bought more of the “wrong” stuff.

In contrast, the genteel classes have never tried to shed pounds quicker. They are more nutrient-conscious and are actively changing their diets to eat more healthily; the doubling of liposuction operations to 350,000 a year in the US tells its own story.

If these trends continue, obesity-related illness will kill as many people as smoking-related illness es. Although initial evidence suggests that the poor are getting fatter quicker, every citizen is at risk. Expenditure on health services will rocket, as will spending on dietary supplements, an excellent business opportunity.

As for the hard men in Dun Laoghaire, if the Corpo wants to avoid compo payouts of monumental proportions, it will have to start reinforcing the church wall to take the weight of the locals. As ever in Ireland, the consequences of obesity will be seen as somebody else’s fault.   


  1. ronnie

    carpe diem seems to be the philosophy of everyone these
    days.no one contemplates their future health and instead
    binge on fast food.theconcept and economics of the fast
    food industry has profound effects for societies as the
    book “fast food nation” indicates .
    what is needed is more education on the dangers of obesity
    and “fast food” which has led to life expectancy decreasing
    for possibly the first time ever.
    it is every taxpayer and the economy that will pay for the
    self induced “illnesses” which seem surreal in a world
    where so many are hungry and starving.
    people who become so obese and cause themselves harm like
    those that smoke and drink too much are doing a great job
    at reducing their lifespans at a time when medical
    technology has not been more advanced -how ironical. people
    have the freedom to chose how to live their lives but when
    it impacts to a great extent on the social and health
    services of a nation it has to be asked what can be done to
    reduce or eradicate such behaviour and its impact on
    society.
    the new anti smoking ad’s featuring autopsies are the type
    of shock tactics required, but these alone are not enough,
    the consumer wants to consume and is not rational so what
    can we do, tax unhealthy foods? any suggestions david.

  2. Billy Waters

    We need to declare all out war on the IFA, NDC, Bord Bia
    and their cronies. Milk consumption has rocketed and we
    are getting fatter as a result. Think about it for a
    second. Milk is commonplace. Traditionally it was only
    drun when the cow was pregnant or just after giving birth.
    Old fashioned cows were physically smaller and got pregant
    less often. Milk was a luxury and was scarce.

    Now it is in everything. Even breaded fish has milk
    products in it. This is obscene. The modern cow is
    constantly pregnant. Pregnant with hormone filled fuel
    that was designed for a calf but by some prerverted logic
    we think its great. Its not great and there is evidence to
    suggest that the hormone IGF-1 in milk is a leading cause
    of breast cancer.

    Milk was designed as a short term boost for a calf to grow
    into adolescence as fast as possible. Of course we are
    going to get fat if we overconsume this food designed for
    another animal. Treatment for breast cancer firstly blocks
    the IGF-1 hormone that we drink every day on our
    cornflakes, in our tea and in our chocolate bars.

    Obesity in Ireland is more to do with the fact that we have
    normalised the over consumption of milk and milk products
    with the lie that it is in any way good for us. The
    calcium myth is totally unfounded. A billion people in
    China have never drunk milk and they rarely need hip
    replacements and are more active longer than the Irish, if
    we live that long.

    All that milk is good for is the farmers wallet. Its not
    good for the cow (imagine being pregnant and out in a cold
    field for 25 years) its not good for the consumer and is
    not good for the environment that the farmers won’t let us
    walk on.

    We need a rational debate about the effects of the dairy
    industy on our country and our health before it kills us
    all. They whinge in bad times that their pockets are empty
    and they whinge in good times that their pockets are too
    small. What I want is for the vested interests to take
    their lies and dangerous foods away and let us live long
    healthy lives. I am fed up watching people die in their
    fifties because they have been fooled by the farmers for
    too long. At least they have to be honest and admit that
    drinking milk is as dangeroous for your health as smoking
    is.

  3. Al

    I am a smoker, and a little overweight!

    I believe that societies all over the planet have allowed
    and enabled capitalism to come first, and the human race to
    come second.

    In the same way that society owes it to itself to eradicate
    the mass breathing of smoke into the human lung for
    financial gain, which only we as a race are responsible for
    allowing to happen, society owes it to itself to eradicate
    the foods supply?s that have been created for the same
    financial gain reasons.

    Surprise surprise, Complacent Ireland is toping yet another
    poll concerning one of the many paths to self-destruction.
    What is it about this country that so many of us love to
    kill ourselves and allow ourselves to be killed?

  4. Mairead Naughton

    Dear All,

    Obesity and child hood illnesses has been linked to allergies to specific foods, see web site http://www.fedupwithfoodadditives.info/information/breastfeeding.htm.

    In my opinoin this information should be made available to new mothers in the maternity hospitals, which was not made available to me recently, so that the FULL facts are available. Children are allergic to something, and it is worth finding out what it is !!!

    Our hospitals are not trained or resourced to determine the answers and children should be screened for allergies at birth which allow parents to make educated decisions on their childens health.

    Please e-mail Mary Hearney and our Bertie Ahern, and request that this becomes a standard instead of the exception.

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