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Column: Fat isn’t funny anymore – not when it’s costing the country almost €4bn a year

There’s a strong correlation between weight and income. John Verling asks whether we’re in danger of criminalising being fat while missing the nub of the problem …

John Verling

THE FAT KID will always get the laughs, it’s an easy joke and comedy loves the weight gag. But fat isn’t funny anymore, not when it’s costing the country almost €4 billion a year. But are we in danger of almost criminalising being fat while missing the nub of the problem? Eating habits, lack of exercise and socio-economic problems are far more important than fitting into skinny jeans.

Official figures show 61 per cent of adults and over 20 per cent of children aged 5-12 are officially obese or overweight.  ’Obese’ or ‘fat’ are words I dislike, they seem loaded with hate and disgust. They can also be very restrictive terms – you either are or you’re aren’t – without any touch of humanity involved. Bad weight control, though, leads to many problems such as heart disease, diabetes and various cancers.

The damage can also be compounded by being passed on to the next generation. Children in the womb whose mothers are overweight, tend to be above normal in size too and can find it very difficult to shed the excess weight. Most health problems arise a bit down the road, usually when it is too late. However ‘later in life’ can now mean the teens or early twenties, so maybe the time is upon us.

Weight and income

There is a strong correlation between weight and income and it’s becoming an almost impossible cycle to break. Many main shopping streets in the average Irish town haven’t a fresh vegetable for sale, although there are plenty of chippers, charity shops and cut price retailers. For those on a restricted budget, it can be cheaper to get a fried chicken dinner than plan a home-cooked meal. The regular intake of carbs, salt and fats is inevitably going to lead to health problems, which will restrict one’s job opportunities. It is all very well to say ‘Well, why don’t you go to the local butcher and buy a chicken or two for the week?’, but what if the local butcher is now in the out-of-town shopping centre and you don’t have access to transport?

With our growing population, the cost of treating obesity-related ill health is only going to rise. Can we afford to let this problem increase at the rate it is? Should planning laws insist on a greengrocer type shop on every street? Surely an enlightened planner could come up with something – maybe a tax relief on rental for essential shops. There certainly isn’t a shortage of empty commercial units on the Irish main street at the moment.

The money spent now in tax breaks would well defray the costs to the health budget in the future, as could investment in proper cycle lanes and planned walkways. Our health system is already creaking from the strains of the current population; imagine what will happen when the ‘obesity time bomb’ does explode. People can’t afford health insurance, so the State will have to pick up the tab from today’s bad eating habits.

Exercise and education

Education can also play an important part of the war on weight. The fact that Irish primary school children are bottom of the list for hours devoted to exercise has to be addressed. Kids aged under 12 only get one hour a week with the curriculum; primary schools don’t have a cooking or food programme and there isn’t any time devoted to good eating habits.

A class of what constitutes ‘good food’ and how to read food labels might help a lot – sowould instilling an understanding of what food does and how to build a healthy diet. There isn’t a need to demonise certain foods but we can teach how treats should be just that, and not a daily staple.

Our eating habits are becoming very dangerous

Today’s food can be very difficult for our bodies to process fully. Our biological make-up means that energy-laden foods need to be burned off by exercise. Combined with our modern sedentary lifestyles our eating habits are becoming very dangerous. Certainly the labelling of processed foods needs to be clearer and more focused on the consumer than the producer. Cheap, processed meals, straight from the freezer to the table via the microwave, should only be a quick-fix not a daily occurrence. Salt, sugars, fats and added ingredients should be boldly displayed, as should that of the fresh veg that compliments the packaged product.

Food manufacturers don’t want the government controlling how they produce their food and they certainly want as little warning on their labels as possible. The industry is a very powerful lobby, a big employer, and probably a major contributor to the tax take of any country. In the UK, they have devised a voluntary code of practise for good behaviour by the food industry – a code drawn up by themselves, with an inevitable watering-down of programmes to encourage better eating habits. This is why fast food chains can make ludicrous claims that their products are part of your one-in-five daily diet recommendations. Big Food needs to be tackled, just like the tobacco industry and alcohol companies were made to account for their products.

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Exercise now costs money

Exercise is vital for weight control as well. If you’re filling yourself up on carbs you need to burn them off. However we don’t encourage our children to walk, and certainly in lower income areas the facilities aren’t there anymore. The open fields surrounding many Irish towns have been built on. Exercise now costs money, too. Bikes, football gear, gym membership and even a running kit are expensive – too expensive for families with limited incomes.

We are walking ourselves into a big, expensive health problem. Investment in infrastructure, long-term planning and education programmes is needed before it is too late. The time to act is now.

John Verling is a father of three children and is from County Cork. He writes a blog called Verlingsweek. To read more from John for TheJournal.ie click here.

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