Obesity – a Maltese recipe for disaster

Hot on the heels of the news by the World Health Organisation (WHO)’s European Health Report 2018 that 29.8% of the Maltese population is obese, Newsbook.com.mt spoke to nutrition expert Dr Claire Copperstone.

“The results are compatible with other studies showing a high prevalence of obesity, unfortunately, in both adults and children, and it is a scenario which is still being experienced by many countries, including Malta,” she said.

Dr Claire Copperstone PhD

Dr Copperstone, who is a lecturer (Human Nutrition) in the Department of Food Sciences and Nutrition of the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Malta said that a lot of work has been done in recent years and there are now strategies in place with an overall aim of improving the situation.

“However this is a complex issue which requires a dynamic multi- and inter-sectoral sustained response for the situation to improve in the long term,” she stated.

Malta’s rate of obesity – second only to Turkey

According to the UN study, which covered 53 countries, Malta’s rate of obesity is second only to Turkey with 32% and is followed by the UK where the figure is 27.8%.

The WHO definition of obesity is someone with a body mass index (BMI) of more than 30, meaning more than 87kg for someone measuring 1.7m (5’5″).

A graph showing the percentage of overweight and obese adolescents aged 13-years-old put Malta at the very top with both male and female percentages sitting at around 36% and 33% respectively.

Education is important… but it is not enough

“We know today that education, whilst important, is not enough to change dietary behaviour. Eating habits need time to change and the whole population needs to be engaged, as no one single initiative on its own, whilst beneficial, will be enough,” said Dr Copperstone.

She added that dietary interventions involving different stakeholders are needed locally and everyone needs to be involved – from decision-makers across the different public and private sectors to the consumer; from the wider settings such as towns, schools and workplaces, to the smaller home settings to include families (parents) and the individuals themselves.

Personal taste is also a factor

Dr Copperstone explained that the causes for overweight and obesity are numerous, ranging from habitual consumption of too many calories in one’s diet to too little physical activity or prolonged sedentary behaviour, cultural influences, the possible higher cost of healthy food, accessibility and easy availability of unhealthy food amongst many other reasons.

Personal reasons such as taste and individual preferences should also not be overlooked.

Updated recent dietary guidelines promote the Mediterranean diet and give recommendations for appropriate daily intakes for the different food groups and portion size advice.

“For someone who wants to follow a healthy balanced varied diet, one needs to ensure also that his or her daily caloric intake is controlled, is physically active, whilst taking care to reduce intake of particular nutrients such as free sugars (found in products such as confectionery items and soft drinks) as well as reduce consumption of processed foods,” she explained.

It’s not all about the food

It is important also to look at overall health behaviours and not just healthy eating.

“The advice is that any small changes will make a big difference in the long term, so it is crucial to seek and reach out to experienced and qualified professionals and support networks to motivate and guide towards a healthy balanced diet for safe and sustained weight loss,” Dr Copperstone concluded.