Thursday, 16 January 2014

Obesity: comment is free

There's a lot of discussion going on these days about the food people are 'forced' to eat in highly developed countries. My reading this week started off with a Guardian comment-is-free discussion of how obesity cannot just be controlled through personal responsibility alone (written by an Australian contributor) - in other words, the state and industry needed to make some kind of contribution too. Then I saw the BBC using the phrase 'obesity crisis'. Greek news rarely discusses obesity as a prime news topic (let's face it, we have plenty of other hot topics to discuss right now), although I don't see it as anything close to a crisis in my country. Last but not least, The Guardian also published a story about banning sugar and chocolate at supermarket counters, replacing them with dried and fresh fruit, oatcakes and juices, after customer demand:
Lidl (supermarket) has banned sweets and chocolate bars from the checkout at all 600 of its UK stores after surveying parents about the "pester power" of their children. 
This last story was followed up by a Guardian survey, asking readers if they thought this was a good move. This led me to think about how I could make a contribution to the obesity debate, by writing my own comment-is-free article that The Guardian may be interested in publishing. Writing beyond my own blog is definitely one of my goals, and since I write in English and not Greek, I look towards international websites where I can do this. (Writing in Greek is very very different from writing in Engligh - it is not one of my goals at present.) So I began to write my article on Monday morning before contacting the website about my interest in becoming a contributor. (There are rules and guidelines about how to do this, which I read through first; The Guardian leans to the left.) I spent the whole morning writing; 2pm, I felt I had covered all the topics I wanted to include, and added the relevant links. I then prepared my introductory letter email to the comment-is-free staff (you don't send them the article, just a little about the topic you want to cover), which is always the trickiest part of introducing yourself to someone that doesn't know you:
   I would like to contribute to the current discussion about obesity. I live in Greece, and have been blogging ( about Greek food and how it relates to Greek identity for nearly seven years. 
   The main point about obesity that I wish to make is that it is often caused by an over-abundance of processed food, especially in the western world which attaches a negative view to home-cooking and and a positive one to branded food products. I would like to draw on my personal experiences, many of which I have recorded in my blog, and to point out the differences in the Greek culinary culture that possibly protect us from rising obesity levels.  
   I hope it will be of interest, as the topics of obesity levels and industrialised food seem to be cropping up on a regular basis in mainstream news.
As soon as I sent it, I got a routine DoNotReply email acknowledging receipt. This was immediately followed by two more bot messages: one from a comment-is-free staff member who said they weren't in the office that day and would respond on their return, and one more from another staff member informing me that they don't work on Tuesdays or Wednesdays (I was writing on a Monday) and to contact another staff member (who was in fact the one that sent the previous email to say they weren't in the office day). Half an hour later, I received another email, this time from a real person:
"Thanks very much for this offer. I'm afraid I don't think it's one for us." 
So that was that, I decided. I then sent a 'thank-you-for-your-prompt-reply' message, as I like to acknowledge receipt of my emails. Since I'd already written my post, I decided to put it up on the blog, after making a few refinements. I didn't do this immediately, as I thought that the topic could 'wait' a little. The next day (Tuesday), what caught my reading attention in The Guardian was an article about the free school meal plans for every child in the UK. It sounded to me like the problem of feeding children was being removed from the parent, and added to the state burden; helping people to cope with the global economic problems is a bit like giving a man a fish to eat (not teaching him how to fish). Providing a decent meal for your child is part of good parenting, so I wondered if this kind of policy would encourage parents not to bother to do this, using the excuse that their kids will have been fed already at school. Parents (for various reasons) are often the main factor in the obesity problems and bad food habits of their children.

I also snatched a glance at another food-related article touted on the home page of The Guardian entitled "How to give up sugar in 11 easy steps", clearly related to the previous day's issue of obesity not being just a personal responsibility, as well as the ongoing excess-sugar debate in processed food. But I was a little dismayed to discover that Zoe Williams was being more tongue-in-cheek than her usual form, and her 'advice', at least after the fifth step, was bordering on the batty (point 6 was simply labelled 'Gary Barlow'). I also snuck a quick look at the 5 most viewed posts in the Life&Style section which gives one an idea of what kind of topics the website publishes (and presumably what people are interested in reading):
  1. 1. How to give up sugar in 11 easy steps
  2. 2.Female pilots: a slow take-off
  3. 3.I'm unable to have penetrative sex with my husband
  4. 4.Why snooty waiters are becoming a thing of the past
  5. 5.Dieting makes you fatter
It is worth noting that there was another obesity-related article mentioned in the list, as well as another food-related post. I quite liked the 'snooty waiters' story:
"the recession may have been 'one of the best things to happen to the dining scene in the UK' because it forced the restaurant industry to look at the way it serves people". 
I dislike snobby attitudes to food: the next thing that should go in the UK is treating top-to-tail dining as an elite and expensive experience (for goodness sake, you are eating an animal's bum). And less than an hour later, I caught a BBCNews discussion on the continuing mistrust of the public in the labelling of their food, in relation to the biggest food fraud in the last decade, which was revealed by the horsemeat scandal.

So it is not far wrong to believe that food is a really hot topic in the UK, especially when it comes to processed food and obesity. Hence, it is a shame that a Greek point of view could not have been equally considered as part of the obesity debate, given that it was trying to provide some insight into why one of the poorest countries in Europe has better nutrition habits. Never mind, I know who will appreciate it, of course. My readers. So here it is (blued, to make it stand out from the rest of the post).

In Crete (Greece) where I live, obesity is also regarded as a problem, especially prevalent among children and women; this is often explained by high inactivity levels and the ease with which processed (read: junk) food is available. Despite the economic crisis, where one would think that people will be spending less money on ready food and more money on cooking from scratch, this does not hold true.

Children are still eating a heck of a lot of junk food, something I regularly notice when I drop my son off in the morning at his high school. A good many pupils arrive carrying packaged food: large chocolate bars, crisps, salty pastry snacks, store-bought ham-and-cheese filled rolls, packets of chocolate biscuits. Drinks range from locally produced soft drinks (I am surprised to see this - they don't seem to be drinking global brands), juice boxes (the school is located in an orange-producing village!) and styrofoam coffee. I once saw a girl licking an ice-cream rocket cone as she arrived at the school gates. No one was munching on fruit or anything that looked barely home-made.

Why shouldn't they eat all this packaged food? For a start, it's very cheap. Supermarket offers of own-label crisps and croissants are so low-priced that it makes baking cakes, muffins and biscuits from scratch seem expensive: why not just stick a pretty package full of something tasty (as processed food usually is) into your child's lunchbox (or let them buy it for breakfast), instead of going to the trouble of putting real food in its hands, like fruit which may get damaged in its bag? (Yes, I have seen what an uneaten banana looks like - brown goo - when it is forgotten at the bottom of a school bag.)

It should be noted that not all the children that I observe in the morning eating packaged food are fat, or even close to obese. Only a few look overweight, and there are a good many that do not look fat at all. So the first thing to note in the obese children is not necessarily what they are eating: it's better to ask how inactive they are. Greek children spend a lot of time at school sitting at their desks and they have only two-three school periods dedicated to physical education; after-hours sports clubs abound but may be too costly (this includes time and petrol expenses for children who live far way from a main centre and there is a lack of bus services). It's not just the hi-carb, hi-fat, hi-sugar food that's making them fat.

Greek food culture is still heavily based around a home-cooked meal, and mama's kouzina: there is still a great likelihood that there will be a freshly cooked meal, either on the stovetop, in the oven or the fridge, waiting for everyone to come back home to after school or work. Even among working Greek women who aren't at home to cook the main meal, which is often eaten some time after the middle of the day until the early afternoon, they will have prepared the meal from the night before, or someone else will be doing the cooking (eg a grandmother, an older child, or even the father/grandfather, as Greek men are now more involved in these once-female domains). Even if Greek children eat processed food, they are also just as likely to be eating a home-cooked meal made from scratch on a daily basis. It is also a point of discussion among women at work: "What have you prepared for lunch?" my colleagues ask each other. The answers are, believe it or not, very similar: fasolakia yiahni (string beans in tomato sauce), bifteki (baked meat patties) and potatoes, fakies (lentil soup), among a range of Greek meals considered standard fare in daily Greek cuisine, which can be prepared easily, and overnight if the home cook is not available to cook it during the day. (As I write, there is a pot of rice-stuffed mallow leaves - a kind of dolma - waiting on the stovetop, prepared from the previous evening, for when my family comes home in the mid-afternoon).

The preponderance of home-cooked meals in Greece is attested even among the poorest sectors of society: Greek soup kitchens and food banks supply people with a cooked meal, or 'primary' ingredients with which to cook a meal at home. They are rarely supplied with ready-to-eat or heat'n'eat products. This can even be seen at the food collection points of Greek schools and supermarkets: things like tinned soup, pasta sauces, rice pudding and sponge pudding are not part of our culinary culture. No wonder the 'Greek' label is being tacked onto processed food products (whether produced in or outside Greece) and doing so well: Greek food is regarded as healthy and pure. The main meal of the day in Greece is less likely to be a heat 'n' eat type - such products are still more expensive than cooking the same meal from scratch. A meal can be as basic as roast/stewed/boiled vegetables, and/or dry/frozen beans, often accompanied by cheese (Greeks most likely still eat more cheese per capita than any other European).

Even the nation's beloved fast food meal, the souvlaki (also known as yiro), can hardly be called a highly processed meal. Each layer is completely transparent and anyone who has bought souvlaki in Greece from a souvlatzidiko will remember its assembly: First, the kitchen hand slices some cooked meat off the upright grill. Then he picks up a square piece of paper and places on it a flat disc-shaped bread product (the most processed part of a souvlaki). He then spreads yoghurt on it, some onion slices, the meat pieces, tomato slices, some freshly cut, freshly fried potatoes and sprinkles a bit of paprika on top, before sealing the paper on both ends. Hardly a processed meal - and even that is more expensive in a crisis-ridden economy than cooking a meal from scratch.

The obesity issue is making a regular appearance in mainstream international news websites, and it should worry all of us, not matter how healthy we think our food is, even if we do read all the food-packaging labels, despite how sure we are of what goes into our food because we put it in there ourselves. But what should really worry us most of all concerning our daily diet is our food habits. If our daily food routine involves eating a lot of processed food whose contents are not immediately discernible on sight, we should really be asking ourselves what is in that food. And much more importantly: if we are responsible for the food that children eat, whether they are our children or not, we really need to be sure that they are eating appropriate amounts of food for their activity levels.

Falling into the habit of eating too much processed food is just too easy to do in highly developed countries, which treat cooking as an art form rather than a daily chore; where cheap tasty food is presented in pretty packaging; where time spent on cooking from scratch is seen as old-fashioned; where branded food is heavily advertised; where sedentary work is the rule of thumb; where drinking juice is cheaper than eating fruit; where drinking out of a logo-printed bottle/cup is more common than drinking tap water; where 'eating out' includes breakfast; where Michael Pollan's ideas about eating like your grandmother or eating food which contains up to five ingredients are regarded as deluded; where food is regarded as a money-spinning industry; where standardised tastes are viewed as superior to seasonal differences (and seasonal differences don't exist anyway); where people have been deliberately brainwashed to have complete ignorance of their food chain - you really cannot control what you put in your mouth under such circumstances unless you make an incredibly large effort and possibly spend quite a bit of time and money to eat nutritious healthy 'real' food that does not contain hidden additives.

Such evidence possibly lends some weight to the argument which claims that obesity cannot be controlled through personal responsibility alone, but I highly doubt that the profit-driven food industry which works according to the rules of the modern market-driven world is going to work towards making processed food healthier quickly enough to save my children from their inescapable fate, which is that they will most likely cook less than their mother and eat more processed food in their older age than their parents ever ate. Cultural culinary habits play a major role in what and how we eat, even in the highly developed world, whose citizens enjoy the greatest range of international cuisine, and the greatest freedom from time spent in the kitchen. Sometimes, you just have to say no, whether it's to yourself or to your children. It's the only way to control salt and sugar intake. Sometimes, having the economic power to buy whatever you want to eat in artificial form is actually working towards making you ill, requiring you to find equally artificial ways to expend some of your excess energy. (approximately 1500 words - 12 links from my blog, 2 links from elsewhere)

In my opinion, it really is a shame that a Greek point of view on the topic of obesity cannot be heard more widely. Greek food is popular throughout the western world and Greeks are traditionally a nation of home cooks; asking them to teach economics to the outside world might be regarded as laughable, but this surely cannot apply to their cooking habits.

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