The other morning, I sipped my coffee and flipped through the morning paper. Front page was filled with stories on terrorism, the IS kidnappings and ‘hate preachers’ on trial. Wars and rumours of war. About halfway through, there is a little blurb on the side of the page reporting that now 1/3 of British men are obese. The usual health implications are trotted out in the brief paragraphs that follow – cancer, diabetes, heart disease, depression. Scary things that have lost their power to frighten us somehow. Even considering my line of work, I feel more anxiety reading about air strikes and kidnappings in the Middle East than I do about the distinct probability that 1 in 3 men I know will suffer and possibly die from a completely preventable cause.
In the same paper, another few pages in, a second small article nestled amongst random news blurbs – that obese boys grown up to earn less as adults compared to their healthy weight counterparts. It started to sink in – a picture of this growing number of diseased, unhappy people and their children picking up all the habits that will seal a similarly unhappy fate. That’s a a scary truth that lurks closer to home.
How does this happen on such an epic scale? On an everyday, micro-level i feel like I’ve seen recently how this epidemic spreads without more of us standing up in utter disbelief and disgust. One of the many factors that is slowly robbing our society of health is about subtle shifts in our food supply. Shifts that we almost don’t notice that underpin modern eating habits and greasing a slippery slope to disease.
Back when I saw fitness as a pastime rather than a livelihood and a lifestyle, my husband and I indulged in lots of goodies. Home cooked, from scratch, but still a carby, sugary wonderland. Over the past few years, we cut out the carby stuff – eating mostly meats and vegetables. We don’t have much reason to turn to packaged stuff, takeaway, ready meals and in doing so have become quite separate from the day-to-day eating habits common in western society.
The other day, I realised it must have been 4 years since I made cheesecake. I used to make a signature cheesecake about every month or so; a creamy and baked one with the edges just slightly golden and covered in a dark chocolate ganache. Basically, as close a you can get to carnal sin in food form. Every life is better with balance, so I decided it had been too long since the cheesecake. Not only that, but I would knock up another long-absent indulgence, a paella, to preface it
I went shopping. I needed cream cheese, biscuits for the base, quality chocolate. The paella list included fresh seafood, pork, chicken stock and fresh peas. I expected a quick dash around the aisles, but I didn’t account for these subtle changes I’m complaining about here. Since I last shopped for them 4 years ago, these old familiar ingredients were near impossible to find. No fresh prawns or scallops available. Fresh peas were also unavailable. The only option was frozen. The fresh chicken stock I used to buy was replaced with powders, packets, flavoured jelly pots and the liquid versions I could find were laced with sugar. Even the biscuits I used to buy for the cheesecake base, the simple all-butter shortbreads, was now made with an extra coating of sugar. The cream cheese used to come in 300g container, now I noted it was 280g in the large size.
I was paying more money for worse ingredients that would produce a less tasty result. The extra sugar in things seemed silly, but it is found increasingly in food items that previously were sugar free because it tastes nice and makes it more likely that people will buy it again. Worst of all, these changes to ingredients have implications for how people cook their food, if they even cook it and how healthy the food can be. Without the time and energy to hunt around, as well as a massive magnifying glass to catch out these sneaky food producers, good food is hard to make. The basic ingredients that allow people to create meals have been replaced by time-savers, flavour-enhancers and short-cuts that all add sugar, preservatives and cost to home cooking.
I’ve come to the conclusion that obesity is an epidemic partly because society is drifting further away from real food ingredients and into the realm of jars and packages. The knowledge of how to cook from scratch is being slowly eroded, leaving future generations increasingly reliant on these convenience items. And fatter than ever before. When I work with people on their eating habits, most people tell me that most of their food is homemade. It’s not until we start picking things apart do we see that it’s really just glorified takeaway concocted of ready-made bits that are supposed to make home cooking easy. Reality check: just because you’ve used a pot or pan at home, doesn’t make it homemade.
It’s a tragedy and one that seems to have crept up on all of us. But it’s not too late. It’s just time to get choosey. Time to get snobby about food. There are links between weight gain and having a dislike for preparing, cooking and cleaning up after meals. So even if you’re not keen to diet, challenge yourself to make it all yourself – ensuring every ingredient is something you can identify, not some chemical-sounding compound that you just assumed was alright because otherwise they wouldn’t sell it to you. Want to beat the obesity epidemic? Need to lose weight? Stop being a sucker food manufacturer’s hype and starting being a chef!