November 24, 2014
Like many fortysomething Irish men, I try to live a reasonably healthy life in between the pints, the Twixes and a car dashboard littered with sandwich wrappers, milky takeaway coffee cups and more than the odd crumpled up, badly-hidden bag of Tayto. Let’s just say that if the car were preserved as a crime scene, you wouldn’t need the microscopic tricks of those fancy lads from CSI to get a conviction.
As a result, twice a week I haul myself around football pitches playing something that vaguely resembles a game we once played as teenagers.
Today, I don’t drink as many pints as I used to, but I should drink less wine, a lot less! I generally don’t gorge excessively. Owning a labrador (who is also fighting the middle-aged spread) helps to get me out of the house and up the hill most mornings. Unlike some of my friends, I haven’t succumbed to the racing bike, but there’s always time.
I have always liked playing sport, but have no personal discipline, so gyms aren’t an option. I need other lads roaring at me to keep up, so team sports like football are essential. There is also a great release where I can lose the rag and explode on the pitch in a way I can’t do anywhere else. I have tried to point out to the lads that midweek pints after the match aren’t the smartest, but you have to be sociable, don’t you?
However, the main concern – and it’s more a “lurking in the back of the mind” concern, than a daily anxiety – is to stay healthy as I get older and not put on too much weight.
The weight thing is part male vanity prompted by the arrival of the dreaded Ned Kelly, but it is also an awareness that fat kills and fat kills early and unpleasantly. It is hard to overstate just how destructive being overweight can be and how hard it is to lose weight once you put it on. Ireland is getting fat at a rate few of us can appreciate, yet which we can see all around us.
Over 30 per cent of Irish men and women are now either overweight or obese. Rates of obesity throughout the population are rising at about 1 per cent per annum. So, every year, an extra 1 per cent of the population becomes overweight or obese. This is truly shocking because we are talking here about between 40,000 and 50,000 people per year in Ireland alone. Consider if these rates continue as they have been since 2005, 80 per cent of the Irish population between the ages of 21 and 60 could be obese or overweight by 2040.
This is new. Imagine you were to measure Irish people’s existence since the first hunter-gatherers came here in terms of a 24-hour clock. Up to 11.55pm the problem for Irish people wouldn’t have been too much food, but too little! We forget that significant hunger was part of human existence up until recently, and we with our famine history should appreciate this.
Now this has changed. Worldwide today, there are nearly two and a half times more people overweight or obese than there are people undernourished. This is a huge dilemma. We have gone from not enough food to too much food in 40 years, and obesity has rocketed.
This week a new study by McKinsey lays out the figures – and they are shocking. More than 2.1 billion people – nearly 30 per cent of the global population – are overweight or obese. Obesity, which should be preventable, is now responsible for about 5 per cent of all deaths worldwide from a variety of diseases ranging from diabetes to heart disease and respiratory illnesses. According to McKinsey, the global economic impact of obesity is roughly $2 trillion. This is 2.8 per cent of global GDP. This figure is equivalent to the GDP of Italy or Russia. Obesity today has the same negative impact on the global economy as armed conflict, and only a shade less than smoking.
Around the world, 2 to 7 per cent of all direct healthcare spending relates to measures to prevent and treat this condition. Up to 20 per cent of all healthcare spending is attributable to obesity, through related diseases such as type-2 diabetes and heart disease. These healthcare costs place a massive burden on government finances. Furthermore, overall economic productivity and employers are both affected by impaired productivity because overweight and obese employees get sick more often.
Things are getting worse, quickly. Extrapolating from the figures in the report, by 2050, a quarter of children in Ireland could be obese. And these will be poor children, not rich children. Kids in the most deprived areas are twice as likely to be obese as kids from rich areas. One of the biggest leading indicators of obesity in children is if they have obese or overweight parents.
There are many reasons that can explain why we are getting fat. For example, we evolved as a species worried about starvation so the body is able to store energy as fat when there is too little food around. When there is too much, we don’t have the reverse mechanism.
Food is much cheaper than it used to be. Modern life means we sit around more and children do less exercise. For example, in 1969 about 40 per cent of US schoolchildren walked or rode their bikes to school; by 2001, only 13 per cent did.
We are urbanising, too. As we get richer, we eat out more and change the way we eat. Did you know that you eat twice as much if you eat with a group of seven than if you eat alone?
Obesity is a global epidemic and, in Ireland, we are already well on our way to a fat future with all its attendant problems and cost, both material and emotional.
The state needs to take this problem seriously and realise that, to slow down the obesity rates, it needs to embark on a massive education programme to warn people about how they are ruining their own lives by eating the wrong stuff and not exercising enough. The change in behaviour doesn’t have to be dramatic. Eating a little bit less and exercising a little bit more would be a good place to start.
Otherwise, the logical political conclusion ise that the fit and healthy will ask why their taxes are being used to cure the health problems of the lazy and obese, particularly when those health problems look to be entirely self-inflicted.