The recent track record of the Maltese nation is to be commended. We have seen fast economic progress, the introduction of civil liberties and the success of the vaccination rollout, amongst others. However, there remain challenges in areas where progress has been scant or worse still, the situation has worsened.
In 2010, Malta welcomed the World Health Organisation’s Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health and had committed to reduce the obesity rate to 18% by 2025. Instead, we have a rate which is one and a half times this target.
Five years ago, a study by local researchers concluded that “The Maltese population is predominately overweight or obese. Over the period of 35 years, there has been a general increase in the obesity rate and a decline in the overweight and normal weight rates”. More recent WHO studies indicate that, on average, Maltese children carry out only a quarter of what is deemed to be the necessary amount of physical activity.
Among working-age adults, the proportion rises slightly but is still at a relatively low percentage, 36%. Among the elderly, we again have a reduction, with only 28% of the required physical activity level. By contrast in Switzerland, the WHO finds that children do almost 90% of the necessary physical activity, while adults reach about 80% and the elderly manage to do 72%, or twice Maltese working-age adults.
Given this, one understands why Switzerland has the smallest obesity challenge in Europe, while our country unfortunately has the biggest issue. Well over a third of our country’s children are obese.
Well over a third of our country’s children are obese.
Apart from the issue of physical activity, we have a significant nutrition problem. Half of our children do not consume fruit or vegetables. By contrast, somewhere like Belgium, the supposed country of chocolate and fries, more than 60% of children eat vegetables and fruit daily. Almost 40% of Maltese children eat sweets daily, an increase of a quarter from a few years ago.
Talking about obesity is not about body shaming or a criticism for personal choices. Obesity is often not a conscious choice but the result of a hectic life where we feel we must cope with everything, and where we make repeated wrong choices, which we may even regret at the time.
But the impact of all these small decisions, when taken together, can be staggering. A study conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers some years ago showed that conditions relating to obesity account for about a tenth of all our health spending. Around a third of Maltese report experiencing symptoms of depression due to weight issues. Worse still, one in six of premature deaths in our country is due to conditions related to being overweight.
Malta has not always been so. In the 1980s the problem of obesity was half of what it is today. Our country has a tradition of a healthy Mediterranean diet. Many remember a time when physical activity was a more central part of our lives, especially at younger ages.
In the 1980s the problem of obesity was half of what it is today.
This may be a silver lining to the pandemic. Many started to find time to walk and enjoy the countryside. Many started cooking again instead of buying pre-prepared food.
We need to build on this. Besides health, there are other important reasons why we need radical change in favour of physical activity and better diets. A prime example is the fight against climate change. We have become too dependent on cars. We should walk and cycle more. When the pandemic led to a reduction in the use of cars, in places such as Msida, the emission of damaging pollutants decreased by almost half.
How conscious are we of the environmental impact of what we eat? Do we know for example that globally,meat provides about a fifth of all calories, but to produce it we use four-fifths of all farmlands? We are aware of the carbon emissions of our car. But have we considered that what we consume in our kitchens can be an even larger source of emissions?
In addition to improving our health, eating more fruit and vegetables makes a huge difference to the environment. And when consuming fruit and vegetables we should pay more attention to where they come from and how they were grown. When we buy local, we are not only helping local farmers, but we’re also helping ourselves to become healthier and to combat climate change.
When we buy local, we are not only helping local farmers, but we’re also helping ourselves to become healthier and to combat climate change.
For many, all this may seem a luxury that they do not have time and money for. But consider the real cost of what you are doing. We are endangering not just our health and that of our children. We are contributing to damage not just to our country’s environment, but also that of other countries.
With one small step at a time, we can start making different choices. Gradually what we now see as far too difficult, will begin to appear normal.
Smiles with Miles is a first attempt to achieve this culture change. The act of doing physical exercise is being changed, with the help of digital technology, from being an individual act into a communal one. If we act all together to reach 250,000 miles, private sector firms will make donations towards mental health projects aimed at our youth. This will not only help to change our society’s attitude regarding mental health but also sustain research efforts to make sure our policies and strategies work better.
Digital technology can be harnessed to deliver social welfare. It is time that we find new ways to join forces as a community, individuals, and businesses alike, to make the necessary changes to improve our national wellbeing. Smiles with Miles can truly be a pathbreaking initiative to drive forward an agenda for progressive change and improvement to underpin a new prosperity.