Weighing down the economy: our expanding waistline

Obesity often leads to reduced workforce productivity and increased absenteeism, which in turn negatively impacts economic growth and public revenue.

What does Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) normally discuss? Matters of financial importance, we hear you say. Little would you imagine the contents of tonight’s dinner or the weight reading on your scale to be on its agenda.

In fact, the National Audit Office (NAO) has evaluated the effectiveness and outcomes of a government obesity strategy spanning from 2012 to 2022, assessing its execution and whether its objectives were met. Meanwhile, the PAC is reviewing the strategy’s implementation process and suggesting improvements.

As part of this process, culinary expert Anton B. Dougall has expressed his concerns in a letter to the Auditor General, labelling obesity as a compelling yet challenging issue. His letter is publicly available, and it expresses concerns regarding the actual implementation of such reports.

Who is Anton B. Dougall?

Approaching his 72nd birthday, Anton B. Dougall has dedicated his entire career as a culinary educator. He started working as a chef at the Villa Rosa Hotel in Malta in 1971, when he was 19 years old. Since then, he has authored 55 cookbooks and is a familiar voice on the airwaves, hosting weekly radio programmes and bi-weekly television segments. Dougall’s deep understanding of public preferences and attitudes towards food stems not just from his experience but also from his active engagement with the community. He is driven by a desire to demonstrate the value of accessible and affordable cooking, and he challenges the misconception that quality cooking is expensive, advocating instead for the preparation of warm, nutritious, and cost-effective meals. Dougall insists on educating the public on these principles, believing in the power of knowledge to transform eating habits and improve lives.

Anton B. Dougall (l) showcasing traditional Maltese food to the late Duke of Edinburgh

We have an (abominable) attitude

In his letter to the Auditor General, Anton B. Dougall describes a prevailing attitude towards cooking within the household, and the tendency is to opt for convenience and speed, often at the expense of nutritional value. Dougall highlights a common narrative where limited finances or time constraints are cited as reasons for poor dietary choices. However, he points out that these are merely excuses, and not everyone falls into the trap of unhealthy cooking.

He underlines the importance of educating those responsible for cooking within the family to plan and manage their tasks more effectively. He warns of the long-term difficulty in altering dietary habits once children become accustomed to inferior food choices. To illustrate this, he uses his teaching experience with children aged 9 to 15, and he describes their initial disappointment when the curriculum does not include making treats like doughnuts or pancakes with sweetened hazelnut cocoa spread. He says that this is just one example to show how much of a challenge it is to shift young palates towards healthier options.

Families need a weekly menu schedule

Anton B. Dougall has long advocated for the necessity of organisation in the kitchen. According to him, the key to this organisation is the creation of a weekly menu schedule. This approach not only facilitates a more structured and efficient cooking process, but also ensures that grocery shopping is tailored to the family’s actual needs, minimising waste.

Dougall points out the adverse effects of relying too heavily on convenience foods, such as canned goods with preservatives and microwave-ready meals, which, while seemingly practical for those lacking organisation, are detrimental to health. Instead, he champions the idea of preparing and freezing home-cooked meals, arguing that this method offers the same level of convenience as store-bought processed foods, without compromising on health.

We have Italian, Indian, Chinese – but what about Maltese food?

The culinary veteran passionately discusses the significance of maintaining traditional Maltese cuisine amidst a growing preference for fast food and international cuisines in Malta. Despite the local fondness for dough-based dishes, Dougall emphasises the health benefits and rich flavors of Maltese food. He expresses concern over the declining presence of traditional Maltese dishes in the face of increasing popularity of takeaways and restaurants serving Italian, Indian, Chinese, and other Asian foods. He questions whether this shift away from local cuisine is a positive development, noting that, in other Mediterranean countries, traditional food still dominates the culinary landscape. Dougall’s observations highlight a broader issue of cultural preservation and the need to cherish and continue Malta’s culinary traditions, rather than succumb to the convenience of globalised food options.

Profit vs public health

Anton B. Dougall voiced his concerns about the challenges faced by Maltese families during their shopping trips, emphasising the subtle exploitation they encounter due to uniform or closely matched pricing strategies. This situation often leaves people, particularly from lower-income brackets, in pursuit of deals that may not necessarily align with healthy choices. Dougall criticised importers for prioritising profit over public health, by opting to import lower-cost food items without due consideration for their nutritional value, specifically the levels of salt and sugar content. He suggests it might be time to introduce measures such as health warning labels on products deemed unhealthy or to consider imposing higher taxes on sugary products, aiming to protect and inform consumers about their dietary choices.

Bigger is not better

In his letter, the food connoisseur points out that overconsumption is a significant contributor to the obesity issue. He describes how, very often, it’s the quantity of food rather than its quality that garners praise for a restaurant. He observes that, in Malta, the cost of dining out often does not reflect the quality of food or service provided, explaining that both are perceived to be of better value in countries like Italy and Germany.

When it comes to home cooking, Dougall criticises the excessive portions prepared, questioning the necessity of cooking 1,000g of meat or fish for four people when a serving size should not exceed 200g. This habit, he argues, not only promotes unhealthy eating but also results in financial wastage. For instance, a kilogramme of salmon, priced at €15 and potentially yielding five portions, is often consumed in just three. Additionally, Dougall points out a reluctance or lack of knowledge among many when buying fish, leading them to purchase more expensive options unnecessarily. He suggests that a kilogramme of filleted sea bream (awrat), costing around €8, should provide four portions, which, when accompanied by salad or vegetables, would be enough for a family meal.

A tender issue

Anton B. Dougall has expressed concern over the handling of government tenders related to food and catering services. Drawing from years of experience in competing for such contracts, Dougall has observed a significant gap in knowledge among those drafting these tenders, particularly in relation to food. He notes that the specifications often demonstrate a lack of understanding about culinary requirements, citing an example where a daily menu proposed for a specific sector amounted to an excessive three kilogrammes of food per person. This not only indicates an unrealistic expectation of consumption but also implies unnecessary financial costs.

Moreover, Dougall points out the absence of nutritional balance and the scarcity of traditional Maltese dishes in these menus, advocating for a greater emphasis on professionalism across all aspects of food service provision. He recounts a specific instance where, in an effort to offer a distinguished Maltese dining experience to a visiting foreign minister, his team proposed a menu featuring traditional Maltese dishes. However, the response from the minister’s chief of staff was dismissive and indicative of a broader issue of undervaluing local culinary heritage. These experiences underline the need for a more informed and respectful approach to food service planning, particularly in contexts representing Maltese culture and hospitality.

Dougall makes a number of other suggestions, such as local councils conducting educational talks on the importance of meal planning, budgeting, and the nutritional value of food. He also calls for a policy to limit television programmes that promote food high in salt and sugar. In his lectures, Dougall warns about the dangers of these ingredients, labeling salt as “enemy number one” and sugar as “enemy number two”.

Why are these points relevant to the PAC?

Economist and government MP Alex Muscat, a Member of the Public Accounts Committee, spells it out for The Journal.

“As healthcare costs continue to soar, a significant portion of public spending is increasingly directed towards addressing obesity-related illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. This not only places a substantial burden on our national healthcare system but also diverts crucial resources away from other vital public services,” he explains.

Government MP Alex Muscat

He adds that obesity often leads to reduced workforce productivity and increased absenteeism, which in turn negatively impacts economic growth and public revenue. Addressing obesity, therefore, is not just a health imperative but a fiscal necessity, requiring comprehensive public health strategies that include education, access to healthy food options, and opportunities for physical activity.

“By investing in preventive measures and promoting healthier lifestyles, we can alleviate the strain on public accounts and foster a more robust, productive society,” concludes the MP.

Main photo: Towfiqu Barbhuiya

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