Last year, while I was prodding the aubergines at the greengrocer’s, two uniformed policemen appeared in the doorway. One was fat, the other obese and both were looking intently at the greengrocer, trying to catch his eye.
The customers all began to be busy looking elsewhere, while visibly pricking their ears. Me too.
It turned out the obese officer wanted some fresh turmeric. He looked despondent when told the shop was out of it.
He’s not the only one who’s heard of the fat-nibbling powers of turmeric. Its availability on the market reflects rising demand in response to the spreading fame of the latest superfood. Ditto for its fashionable companion heroes, fresh ginger and avocado pears.
A dozen years ago, rucola salads were still primarily the refuge of middle-class, 30-something women with boyfriends who wouldn’t commit. Today, rucola is in demand in working-class neighbourhoods, just like that relative newcomer, kale.
Then there are oats and unsalted nuts, the lot of them. I know an enterprising baker who has a brisk business in both. The sacks of oats are supplied alongside the sacks of flour. It costs him nothing to roast the nuts alongside the bread, little to pack the oats in small bags and the savings are passed on to the customer.
However, he’s also responded to popular demand by beginning to sell the sugary, almond-filled għadam tal-mejtin (‘bones of the dead’, traditionally sold in November) a month early. He’s reflecting a trend found across bakeries and confectionaries, where, in some cases, the Lenten sweet, kwareżimal, is sold throughout the year and figolli (traditional Easter sweets) are sold as early as January.
It’s possible that he’s catering to two different markets but I doubt it. I believe that, like the obese constable, the same people are both obeying and flouting the advice of doctors and dieticians.
We’re changing our food habits both for the better and for the worse. Although it’s largely for the worse. A study of children carried out a dozen years ago found half were overweight or obese before puberty.
In 2014, Chris Fearne launched an inter-ministerial strategy, taking us to 2020, with all the right catchphrases and initiatives. But clearly it has failed. We still have an obesity epidemic; heart-related deaths account for a third of the total.
The head of Mater Dei Hospital’s cardiology department, Robert Xuereb, is, therefore, urging a tax on foods high in fat and sugar (with the loot used to subsidise healthy food). Fearne’s “good-news budget” ignored Xuereb. Was that wrong?
I’m not sure. The record of sugar and fat taxes across many countries is mixed, subject to the law of unintended consequences. A 2011 fat tax failed in Denmark; the UK tax on sugary drinks, supported by the British Medical Association, has been a qualified success.
Ask not what Malta you want to bequeath your children but what children you want to bequeath Malta- Ranier Fsadni
One thing is clear, though. Sugar, fat and refined flour (all linked to obesity, heart-related disease and diabetes) are ubiquitous in highly processed and frozen foods. To reduce that consumption by taxation is essentially to raise prices on a wide range of food. That would hit the hard-up worst while others might simply treat it as a general rise in food prices, rather than an incentive to switch to other foods.
I don’t see how any policy can significantly change behaviour if the real, practical contexts of eating are not accounted for. Xuereb says we should get people to eat fruit instead of pastizzi. However, in the real world, no one is presented with a choice of pastizz or apple.
Apples compete with cheap supermarket ice cream. Pastizzi compete with pasties and thick squares of fatty pizza.
If you find yourself wolfing down a whole bag of pastizzi, you must be eating on the go. You’re as likely to be a stressed, overworked medic – fully knowing what you’re ingesting – as a policeman in a patrol car. A compact lunch of vegetables and fruit was never a practical alternative.
Likewise, the research (elsewhere) is clear that people often eat too much because they eat too fast, which they do if they eat on their own or while online.
To eat healthy food – high in fresh vegetables, some fish and less meat – often means eating food you need to wash, cut and cook yourself. Frozen dinners, high in fattening ingredients, are tempting both for singletons and for families whose members are in and out of the house at different times.
A policy aimed at “empowering individuals” to make “healthy individual choices” misses the point if it doesn’t recognise that the people around us, and how our days are organised, often beyond individual control, have a lot to do with the food we eat.
Close friends tend to be of similar weight, potentially accomplices in unhealthy habits. Leisurely family dinners punctuated by good conversation help people not overeat but families need to find both the time and learn how to converse.
And it’s pointless encouraging a fat boy to play more football if his slowness leads to his frustrated, faster team-mates to humiliate him on the field.
If obesity is a social problem, then the solutions need to be social as well. It has to do with social dysfunction, not just medical problems and personal willpower and skills – structural contradictions in the organisation of our lives where we find ourselves unable to do what it is in our best interests to do.
The policy approach, therefore, has to address families, groups of friends and workplaces together, including those who don’t need to diet. And just as the pandemic has brought us to see that workplace practices (not just canteens) can change, we need to consider how working hours affect our eating habits.
Ask not what Malta you want to bequeath your children but what children you want to bequeath Malta.
Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.Support Us