The big issue

JUST last week the House of Commons Health Committee warned that children were in the grip of an obesity epidemic and lambasted the UK Government's lamentable lack of action.

In the past 20 years, the prevalence of obesity has risen by 400%, and the number of overweight or obese children increased by 25% between 1995 and 2002. Researchers at the University of Southampton confirmed that food additives are causing behavioural problems in the same generation.

It seems perfectly acceptable nowadays for youngsters to reveal layers of pudgy fat over the top of their tight-fitting jeans.

In Ireland, we are also facing a growing problem in every sense of the word, 13% of the population are classified as obese and almost half are overweight.

Food manufacturers, particularly those who make sweets, confectionery and soft drinks, are having to rethink their marketing. The sort of promotions which encourage school children to collect wrappers to buy sports equipment or computers, are being hastily withdrawn, and rightly so. Parents are exhausted from trying to resist the pleas of children seduced by carefully crafted ads for everything from sugar-laden cereals full of empty calories to chicken nuggets and soft drinks laced with aspartame.

Futurologists are now saying that mass-produced food is fast becoming the "new tobacco". In a crisis the natural reaction seems to be to find someone to blame. Fast food outlets are being targeted and demonised but I fear it is wishful thinking to imagine that this sector is the sole cause of the problem. This type of food certainly seems to be a contributory factor, but I believe the problem is much more fundamental.

The food we eat has changed dramatically in the past 40 or 50 years. The fixation with cheap food has forced farmers and food producers to intensify their production methods to the detriment of texture, flavour and nutritional content. Study after study is showing that much of our food contains less vitamins, minerals and trace elements than it used to. Consequently, much of the food we eat is neither nourishing nor satisfying, affecting both our mental and physical health, as we eat more empty calories.

We urgently need to readjust our priorities. People who protest that they cannot afford to buy organic food may want to look at how much they spend in the pub, on magazines, sport, clothes, videos, etc. In 1979, we spent 26% of our income on food; in 1999 it was down to 12.9%. Cheap mass-produced food may well prove to be the most expensive thing you can feed your family in health terms. Investing a little more time sourcing fresh naturally-produced local food in season will pay handsome dividends.

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