With the COVID-19 pandemic currently ongoing, it is easy to divert our attention away from long-existing health issue plaguing the Maltese Islands. Being overweight and obese refers to the excessive presence of fat, which presents a risk to one’s health. Since 1975, worldwide obesity has almost tripled. However, Malta has one of the highest rates of overweight and obese individuals, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). Additionally, in 2016, a study concluded that 69.75% of our population was either overweight or obese.
Let that sink in: over two thirds of our population have an unhealthy weight, with a consequential increase in disease risk. But why is this the case and what should we be doing to stop this?
An individual is medically defined as overweight when their body mass index (BMI) exceeds 25, and is obese when it exceeds 30. Is it our unhealthy food practices and diminished physical exercise that has caused this local trend or does it have to do with genetics? The answer is most likely a mixture of factors.
The human body works such that the excess energy from food is converted into fat, which acts as an energy reserve for future use. In our early civilisations, this was beneficial since food was much scarcer, and as such provided a suitable source of sustenance during the long periods without food. Moreover, when food becomes available again after such periods, we are programmed to over-eat, in order to build up our energy stores once again. Nowadays, the majority of countries have a wide range of foods readily available. The fat stores still serve an important function in our day-to-day lives, such as by producing hormones, and as an energy reservoir during fasting periods. The abundance of food triggers within us an urge to overeat, as we would have done in pre-historic times to prepare for future food shortages.
In addition, new research has shown that the genetic composition of an individual significantly affects the tendency to gain weigh; become obese and what foods we eat. An example of this may be seen in the gut microbiome, which refers to the composition of beneficial micro-organisms living in our gastrointestinal tracts, aiding in digestion and immunity. The genetics of an individual alters the specific types of bacteria within the gut, thereby altering digestion and uptake of nutrients. The microbiome may also be affected by diet, age, mode of birth (i.e. whether by natural labour or c-section) and antibiotics. Additionally, genetics may alter the foods an individual prefers, which may lead to the preferential consumption of unhealthy foods.
One also cannot forget that we live in an age where companies are intentionally making food hyperpalatable. The lethal combination of sugar, salt and fat keeps us addicted and chasing for a dopamine high. One industry fuels another, as by keeping us satiated and full to the brim with calorie-dense food, the faster the consumer base of the fitness industry grows.
How does excess body weight affect the body? The impact is wide-ranging, and can be devastating. Examples of the negative effect include the following:
- Sub-fertility and infertility
- Type 2 diabetes
- Coronary artery disease and stroke
What can be done to limit a further increase in our obesity rate?
Education of children regarding healthy eating and exercise should be at the forefront, since once a habit forms it is difficult to break. Our government has launched several campaigns to aid the situation, such as the ‘Healthy Weight for Life Strategy’, with the aim of teaching individuals how to lose weight and live more healthily. Moreover, the recent food selections in Mater Dei hospital also show the attempt to move our citizens’ food choices towards healthier options. As such, our government and schools are now attempting to remedy this situation, having recognised the precarious situation we are in, albeit still needing more interventions.