Today’s weighty matters.jpg

Today’s weighty matters


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WHEN I was little my mother taught me not to stare or point at grossly overweight people, explaining that their condition was a result of a digestive illness. She had grown up in a post-war Germany characterised by the scarcity of food, luxury articles and indeed the money necessary to buy either even when available.

To her, wanton obesity was an alien concept, and even later, after we had moved to Africa, the extended stomachs of the native children suffering from malnutrition seemed the more natural to her.

Today, some 40 years later, the problem of overeating has become the topic of widespread concern. In 2006, Manuel Uribe, a citizen of Monterrey in Mexico, entered the Guinness Book of Records as the heaviest man on Earth after weighing in at a massive 560kg. Twelve months later, he received another entry, this time for slimming down to a lithe 360kg!

In Britain, Mark Bamber hit the headlines, the 38-year-old father suffering heart failure necessitating the construction of a 7ft 11in long, 4ft 6in wide and 30in deep mahogany casket in order to accommodate his formidable 350kg-plus frame. No hearses big enough to carry such a bourdon could be found and a horse-drawn platform had to suffice to complete the final journey to the cemetery where a mechanical hoist stood in for overstretched pallbearers. Earlier, firemen had to be brought in to remove Mr Bamber’s bedroom window so that they could get him out of his home.

As grotesque as the two examples appear, these are not isolated incidents. Obesity is becoming the norm rather than the exception with few real explanations being put forward as to its cause.

Culinary crimes

One theory, based on latest research, claims that mothers-to-be who gorge on junk food may be more likely to have a child with a sweet tooth. The study suggests that a mother’s diet during pregnancy and subsequent breastfeeding can affect her baby’s food preferences and its future tendency of being fat.

Furthermore, obese women are more at risk of having babies with birth defects, according to related evidence. Almost one in four women in the UK are obese, which is defined as having a BMI (Body Mass Index) over 30, and one-third of women are overweight.

On the other hand, becoming overweight may also greatly cut a man’s chances of fatherhood as obesity increases the chances of male infertility by more than a third and already in excess of 22 per cent of British men, the second highest rate in Europe, are affected.

It is estimated that by 2050, half of all boys and a fifth of girls aged between six and 10 will be obese, giving rise to fears of a health time bomb threatening an entire generation, with an elderly population blighted by heart disease, cancer and diabetes.

In Portugal, 16.5 per cent of the adult population is classed as being too fat, an increase of three per cent over the past seven years. However, European worries about food, health and weight problems are minute compared with those on the other side of the Atlantic. XXXL America has been suffering a veritable obesity epidemic for some years now as the world’s “fattest nation”. So, where do all these extra pounds come from?

In my opinion, this food fad does not have its origin in the womb but on the dinner table of modern life. Stress, work, affluence and the lack of time spent either in the kitchen or dedicated to communal family meals has resulted in malnutrition as extreme and as different as that experienced in the Third World.

Apparently, it all started as long ago as the 19th Century when Napoleon III offered a prize for creating a butter substitute – chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriés’ margarine was the result. In 1933, Pat Olivieri’s sliced steak fried with onions and cheese spread, or cheesesteak, followed and the inventor’s hometown of Philadelphia was promptly named the most obese city in America.

Deep-fried chocolat!

In 1937, Hormel’s spiced ham held a contest to come up with a new name. “Spam” was the winner and has sold six billion tins to date. In 1949, Quiche, later described as a “culinary dustbin”, arrived in Britain and Colonel Sanders added to the misery in 1952 with the opening of the first Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet, a business he sold for two million dollars 12 years later.

Ploughman’s Lunch hit the pubs in 1960 and 1971 saw the launch of Pot Noodles in Japan. And to top it all, a chip shop in Stonehaven, Aberdeenshire, put deep-fried Mars bars (calories estimated at anything up to 932) on sale in 1995. I won’t even mention McDonald’s here.

The truth is, while London has more Michelin-starred restaurants than ever and farmers markets are spreading like wildfire, today’s way of life has reared consumers addicted to utter junk ranging from bright yellow slices of processed cheese to canned fruit salad adorned by a swirl of polystyrene cream.

The crimes committed in modern kitchens are surely unmatched at any time during centuries gone by. Worse, we wear our culinary atrocities like a badge of honour. This obsession unfortunately goes much deeper than being simply a topic of fun conversation like how disastrous a friend’s attempt was at baking a soufflé. We laugh about how filthy a meal was recently, or how we enjoyed the greasy fry-up the morning after the night spent at the local curry house. Our habit is short-lived and potentially deadly.

But enough of doom and gloom. The American actor Jackie Gleason said: “Thin people are beautiful, but fat people are adorable”. From Churchill to Oliver Hardy, Falstaff and Father Christmas, many of our most liked larger than life characters have been rather well-endowed.

The courage the porcine show in the face of ridicule and occasional abuse, Kate Moss eat your heart out, munching away regardless is simply admirable if not to be emulated. ‘Live and let live’ is a worthy motto and each to their own.

Speaking of which, did you know that when it comes to deciding on true love, you might do well to look at your intended’s waistline? Scientists have shown that we tend to marry partners with a similar level of body fat to our own and this has been dubbed as assortative mating. Flab, or the lack of it, is just as important as background, class or age in forming permanent bonds. It can certainly be blamed for the world’s growing obesity problem but it also ensures we are happy together.

If fairy tales are to be believed, a girl can’t do better than a tall, dark and handsome stranger. Reality, however, begs to differ.

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