In the-mid 1990s, a Scottish former junkie author exploded out of Leith in Edinburgh. Irvine Welsh was something different – Roddy Doyle on speed.
Like Doyle, he wrote in a thick working class vernacular. While Doyle created Barrytown, Welsh went back to the rough Easter Road in Edinburgh – home to Hibs. Socialist leader James Connolly was born nearby.
In Leith, Welsh created Trainspotting, the brilliant novel about four young skangers, Renton, Sickboy, Spud and Begbie. Of all the characters, Begbie was the most realistic and the scariest, the quintessential psychopath, the hardest hard chaw on the estate, a man who would glass you as soon as he’d shake your hand. In the inevitable film, Robert Carlyle brilliantly played Begbie. And Carlyle’s Begbie “hadn’t a pick on him”.
When I read Trainspotting, my Begbie was always scrawny,wiry, contorted,unstable and extremely violent. Most of all, he was skinny.
Growing up in Dun Laoghaire, I remember all the hard men were sinewy, scrawny lads, hence the local description “more meat on a seagull”. The reason was simple: they were undernourished. Perched on the church wall in the town were skinny, arseless lads, spitting and smoking Majors. The young wans, despite a couple of babies,were the same.
Today, Dun Laoghaire’s hard men are fat. Rolls of flab strain the Liverpool away strip. Double chins are de rigeur and little piggy eyes are squeezed into sockets among the flab. Gravity has got the better of the youngwans, as their corpulent bums, like two puppies in a bag, make unsightly bids for freedom over their entirely inappropriate hipsters.
Yes, Ireland is getting fat and, more importantly, poor Ireland is getting fat quicker. According to the Institute of European Food Studies in Dublin, over a third of all Europeans are overweight and the Irish are the third fattest race in Europe, behind the Germans and the British.The institute’s latest survey (www.iaso.org/newsletter/p7spring99.htm) claims that between 10 per cent and 14 per cent of Irish people are obese.
We are not alone: obesity is now forecast by the World Health Organisation to be public health enemy number 1 worldwide for the next generation. (http://www.who.org/)
In 2000, for the first time in history, the number of overweight humans matched the number of underweight. There are 1 billion overweight people in the world and 300 million of them are obese. Obesity is calculated by a ratio of weight to height. So for example, someone five foot two tall is classed as obese if he weighs 12 stone 8lb or more. Someone who is six foot two is obese at 16 stone 6lb or over.
The US is the world leader in fatties. Some 64 per cent of Americans are classed as overweight. This figure is up from 47 per cent in 1980.
More disturbingly, some 9 million Americans are now categorised as “morbidly obese” – more than seven stone overweight.The trend in the US is fairly clear: once a society gets fat, it gets progressively fatter and more unhealthy. Obesity leads to 300,000 early deaths in the US. No other condition is responsible for as many deaths other than smoking. In the main, we are talking here about heart conditions, blood pressure problems and diabetes.
Many who have seen our Irish- American cousins waddle around Killarney might not be surprised by the US figures. But did you know that many African women are overweight or obese? Fifteen per cent of Kenyan women are overweight, against 12 per cent who are underweight. In Tanzania the figures are 28 per cent overweight to 9 per cent underweight.
In famine-threatened Zimbabwe, 26 per cent of adult women are overweight and only 5 per cent underweight. The figures from the WHO are startling: 71 per cent of Egyptian women are overweight, as are 52 per cent of Turks; 29 per cent of urban Chinese children are now overweight.
Why is this happening all over the world now? Why in rich countries are the poor getting fatter quicker? And what are the implications for our health services and our finances?
In the US, the main culprit appears to be changes in lifestyle. People are working harder and do not have time for family meals cooked at home. Instead, people are eating takeaways or preheated TVdinners, or eating out.
Meals cooked at home have, on average, half the calories of restaurant meals. So as traditional family routines are broken, we are getting fatter. Obviously a lack of exercise, suburbanisation and the related dependency on the car, along with sedentary deskjobs, all contribute as well.
In poorer countries these trends are just beginning. Poorer countries which have historically experienced food shortages and famines appear to have a “thrifty” gene which predisposes people to eat more and store fat when food is available.This is evident in Pacific Islanders and, according to theWHO, some central Asians.
Another theory suggests that undernourished babies in the womb appear “programmed” to overeat during periods of abundance.
Who is getting fat here? An excellent article in a recent issue of the Economist made the point that the only group of people anywhere in the world who actually lost weight in the 1990s were rich white Brazilian women. In contrast, poor people in the west are getting fatter quicker. This is because the price of food has slid since 1990, mainly due to new technology in mass food processing, discount selling in supermarkets and ownbrand supermarket produce.
Fást food, whose price has fallen even more, is becoming the staple of many poorer families. It is cheaper to go to McDonald’s than bother with shopping and cooking. New brands of cheaper food use more fat substitutes, additives and sugar to sell themselves.The overproduction of food has forced the food industry into a processing war, dramatically increasing our additive intake.
Since 1990, 116,000 new food products have been introduced in the US. For these to sell, they have to be cheap and tasty. Humans have an instinctive liking for sugar.Think about babies and young children here.
Some surveys suggest that certain food changes our mood and that tasty fatty foods are irresistible to many of us. In the global battle for food profitability, smart scientists employed by the big food companies experiment with the most tasty, addictive and in many cases unhealthy combinations. So, as the price of food has fallen, the poor have not spent less on it, but bought more of the “wrong” stuff.
In contrast, the genteel classes have never tried to shed pounds quicker. They are more nutrient-conscious and are actively changing their diets to eat more healthily; the doubling of liposuction operations to 350,000 a year in the US tells its own story.
If these trends continue, obesity-related illness will kill as many people as smoking-related illness es. Although initial evidence suggests that the poor are getting fatter quicker, every citizen is at risk. Expenditure on health services will rocket, as will spending on dietary supplements, an excellent business opportunity.
As for the hard men in Dun Laoghaire, if the Corpo wants to avoid compo payouts of monumental proportions, it will have to start reinforcing the church wall to take the weight of the locals. As ever in Ireland, the consequences of obesity will be seen as somebody else’s fault.