ArchiveJune 12, 2004

Obesity a Health Epidemic

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 in the University of Southampton confirmed that food additives are causing behavioural problems in the same generation. In the UK it is estimated that a quarter of all women and one in five men are classified as obese, and that as many as 30,000 people die prematurely every year from obesity-related conditions. 

However, it is worth noting that the body mass index (BMI) has been revised downwards in the past six years, due to lobbying by groups who are determined to turn obesity into a disease which can be treated by pharmaceutical, diet and medical industries. Overnight 36 million people in the US woke up to find they were classified as obese. In ‘Dispensing with the Truth’, Alicia Mundy points out that in the US medicine is an industry. Think of it, Mundy says as Obesity Inc.!

Whatever the measurement, there’s no denying we’re getting fatter. It seems perfectly acceptable nowadays for youngsters to reveal layers of pudgy fat over the top of their tight-fitting jeans. Hitherto we would have done our best to camouflage the extra pounds with loose-fitting gear. Here in Ireland we have no reason to be smug or complacent, 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 – (42% of males and 27% of females). If you personally are sylph like and feel this issue is irrelevant to you – think again. As taxpayers it effects each and every one of us. It is estimated that obesity accounts for up to 6% of Ireland's total health care costs. In the UK its costing the NHS at least £500m per year.

Over 50% of Americans are now classed as obese, 1 million are classified as super-obese which means they can barely walk and in many cases are completely immobile. A friend from Berkeley in California who is deeply concerned about these issues told me recently that there are 40 people who weigh over 400 lbs in just one of the several hospitals in Berkeley. The annual cost to the US economy of obesity-related problems such as cardio-vascular disease, cancer, diabetes, asthma, hypertension, just some of the ‘health’ problems linked to obesity is now in excess of $100 billion dollars a year. Ironically that figure exactly mirrors the amount that Americans spend on fast food annually.

The Obesity Report has generated enormous debate in the UK and has forced the government to explain its strategy. 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. From watching children’s television or cartoons for even a short time, you will understand why our government recently published a code of practice. Under Advertising Standards Authority of Ireland code of Advertising and Children - An advertisement addressed to children ‘should not encourage an unhealthy lifestyle or unhealthy eating or drinking habits; advertisements representing mealtime should clearly and adequately depict the role of the product within the framework of a balanced diet; snack foods should be clearly represented as such, and not as substitutes for meals.’

It is unlikely to be a coincidence that childhood obesity rates are highest in countries where junk food advertising is least regulated – the US, the fattest nation on earth, UK second and Australia.

Why can’t we put the same resources into an advertising campaign to educate the public about the connection between the food we eat and how we feel. Our food should be our medicine. It is a damning reflection on the current situation that 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 would certainly seem 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 the texture, flavour and nutritional content. Study after study is showing that much of our food contains dramatically less vitamins, minerals and trace elements than it did even in the 1970’s. Consequently much of the food we eat is neither nourishing nor satisfying, effecting both our mental and physical health, as we eat more empty calories.

We urgently need to readjust our priorities, people who regularly 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….

In 1979 we spent 26% of our income on food, in 1999 it was down to 12.9%. 

So much depends on the food we eat. Cheap mass-produced food may well prove to be the most expensive thing you can feed your family in health terms. An investment of a little more time in sourcing really fresh naturally-produced local food in season will pay handsome dividends.

Delicious early Summer foods now in season – Mackerel, Green Gooseberries, Broad Beans, Courgettes – enjoy!

Pangrilled Mackerel with Green Gooseberry Sauce

Mackerel are now in season so look out for some lovely shiny fresh fish to pan grill and serve with tart Green Gooseberry Sauce.
Serves 4

8 fillets of very fresh mackerel (allow 6 ozs (170g) fish for main course, 3 ozs (85g) for a starter)
Seasoned flour
Small knob of butter

Green gooseberry sauce – see below
Heat the grill pan. Dip the fish fillets in flour which has been seasoned with salt and freshly ground pepper. Shake off the excess flour and then spread a little butter with a knife on the flesh side, as though you were buttering a slice of bread rather meanly. When the grill is quite hot but not smoking, place the fish fillets butter side down on the grill; the fish should sizzle as soon as they touch the pan. Turn down the heat slightly and let them cook for 4 or 5 minutes on that side before you turn them over. Continue to cook on the other side until crisp and golden. Serve on a hot plate accompanied by green gooseberry sauce.

Note: Fillets of any small fish are delicious pan grilled in this way. Fish under 2 lbs (900g) such as mackerel, herring and brown trout can also be grilled whole on the pan. Fish over 2 lbs (900g) can be filleted first and then cut across into portions. Large fish 4-6 lbs (1.8-2.7kg) can also be grilled whole. Cook them for 10-15 minutes approx. on each side and then put in a hot oven for another 15 minutes or so to finish cooking.

Green Gooseberry Sauce

Use the tart hard green gooseberries on the bushes at the moment, they make a delicious sauce.
10 ozs (285g) fresh green gooseberries
stock syrup to cover (see below) - 6 fl.ozs (175 ml) approx.
a knob of butter (optional)

Top and tail the gooseberries, put into a stainless steel saucepan, barely cover with stock syrup, bring to the boil and simmer until the fruit bursts. Taste. Stir in a small knob of butter if you like but it is very good without it.
Stock Syrup

4 fl ozs (120ml) water
4 ozs (110g) sugar

Dissolve the sugar in the water and boil together for 2 minutes. Store in a covered jar in the refrigerator until needed. Stock syrup can also be used for sorbets, fruit salads or as a sweetener in homemade lemonades.

Carrigeen Moss Pudding

Serves 4-6
Carrigeen moss is bursting with goodness. I ate it as a child but never liked it as it was always too stiff and unpalatable. Myrtle Allen changed my opinion! Hers was always so light and fluffy. This is her recipe, it’s the best and most delicious. We find that visitors to the country are fascinated by the idea of a dessert made with seaweed and they just love it. The name comes from little rock.

8g (¼oz) cleaned, well dried carrigeen moss (1 semi-closed fistful)
850ml (12pint) milk 
1 tablespoon castor sugar
1 egg, preferably free range
2 teaspoon pure vanilla essence or a vanilla pod

Soak the carrigeen in tepid water for 10 minutes. Strain off the water and put the carrigeen into a saucepan with milk and vanilla pod if used. Bring to the boil and simmer very gently with the lid on for 20 minutes. At that point and not before, separate the egg, put the yolk into a bowl, add the sugar and vanilla essence and whisk together for a few seconds, then pour the milk and carrigeen moss through a strainer onto the egg yolk mixture whisking all the time. The carrigeen will now be swollen and exuding jelly. Rub all this jelly through the strainer and beat it into the milk with the sugar, egg yolk and vanilla essence if used. Test for a set in a saucer as one would with gelatine. Whisk the egg white stiffly and fold or fluff it in gently. It will rise to make a fluffy top. Serve chilled with soft brown sugar and cream and or with a fruit compote eg. Green gooseberry compote.

Green Gooseberry and Elderflower Compote

Serves 6-8
Elderflowers have an extraordinary affinity with green gooseberries and by a happy arrangement of nature they are both in season at the same time.
900g (2 lb) green gooseberries
3-4 elderflower heads
600ml (1pint) cold water
450g (1 lb) sugar

First top and tail the gooseberries. Tie the elderflower heads in a little square of muslin. Put into a stainless steel or enamelled saucepan, add the sugar and cover with cold water. Bring slowly to the boil and continue to boil for 2 minutes. Add the gooseberries and simmer just until the fruit bursts. Allow to get cold. Serve in a pretty bowl and decorate with fresh elderflowers.

Watchpoint: It is essential to cook the fruit until it actually bursts, otherwise the compote will be too bitter.

New Season Baby Broad Beans with Olive Oil and Sheep’s Milk Cheese

My ‘garden angels’ know broad beans, considered dull by many are my favourite vegetable. I insist on planting the first seeds in November. So that with luck we’ll have the first tender beans in June. With careful successive planting we still manage to have them until the end October.
Serves 6
450g (1 lb) new season broad beans - about 1.8kg (4 lb) in the pods
Extra virgin olive oil 
Sea salt 
A Sheep’s Cheese eg Knockalara or organic St Tola Goat Cheese
Crusty white bread – Ciabbatta would be good

Bring the broad beans to the table, have a bottle of your best extra virgin olive oil, a bowl of sea salt and a piece of sharpish sheep’s milk cheese or a lovely fresh goat cheese, Pecorino would of course be delicious or also a good Feta.

Let each person have the pleasure of removing the beans from the furry pods. When you’ve accumulated a little pile on your plate, dip one by one, first into olive oil then into sea salt. Enjoy with the tangy cheese and warm crusty Ciabatta. 

Thin slices of Parma ham (prosciutto) or very good Italian Salami would make a more substantial feast. 

Courgettes or Zucchini with Marjoram

Serves 4
I’m completely hooked on annual marjoram. The seed is sometimes difficult to track down because it can be called Sweet marjoram or Knotty marjoram, but if you have any little patch at all it’s worth growing because it transforms so many dishes into a feast.

1 lb (450 g) green or golden courgettes or a mixture no more than 6 inches (15 cm) in length
1-2 tablespoons approx. olive oil
1-2 teaspoon chopped annual marjoram or basil

Top and tail the courgettes and cut them into scant ¼ inch (5 mm) slices. Heat the oil, toss in the courgettes and coat in the olive oil. Cook on a medium heat until just tender –4-5 minutes approx. Add the marjoram or basil. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Turn into a hot dish and serve immediately.

Courgettes are one of the trickier vegetables to cook. Like mangetout peas they seem to continue cooking at an alarming rate after you’ve taken them out of the pot, so whip them out while they are slightly al dente.

Foolproof Food
This muesli recipe may be varied with the seasons, adding, raspberries, blackberries, apple, chopped hazelnuts.

Ballymaloe Strawberry Muesli

Serves 8
4 ozs (110g) fresh strawberries
3 heaped tablesp. rolled oatmeal 
6 tablespoons water
1 teasp. honey

Soak the oatmeal in the water for 10 or 15 minutes. Meanwhile, mash the strawberries roughly with a fork and mix with the oatmeal. Sweeten to taste with honey, a scant teaspoon is usually enough but it depends on how sweet the strawberries are.
Serve with cream and soft brown sugar.

Hot Tips 

Join an Organic Box Scheme and have a selection of fresh seasonal produce delivered to your home every week. Contact Organic Trust Ltd., Tel. 01 8530271, IOFGA, Tel. 0506-32563, or Demeter 056 - 54214.

Local Producers of Good Food in Cork – the revised edition of this great booklet has just been published by Cork Free Choice Consumer Group – compiled by Myrtle Allen and Fawn Allen – For more information about the group contact Caroline Robinson 021-7330178 , 

Check out the local Farmers’ Market – buy directly from the food producers, often cheaper and fresher, plus you have the bonus of knowing that your ‘food euro’ is encouraging sustainable agriculture and supporting your local community. Extra bonus of an interactive shopping experience (no trolley rage and no sweeties to tempt the kids).

Lobby your TD’s and MEP’s to provide cycle lanes and footpaths on all roads to facilitate people who would like to have the option to take a little exercise. We take our life in our hands, everything militates against the pedestrian and cyclist. Consider the idea of walking to school with your children in the summer. Parents could take turns doing the school walk – bonus of added time to chat, observe nature and get in some exercise all in one – just a thought!

Notice how often we eat between meals. Remember how this was discouraged when we were children. Is it my imagination, or are people eating and drinking non-stop nowadays – try having just three moderately-sized meals a day!

Organise a rota with your pals so you don’t have to bring your children into the supermarket. According to James McNeal, a professor of marketing at Texas A&M University, who wrote the influential sales handbook ‘Kids as Customers’, child pester power is responsible for 75% of spontaneous and un-intentioned food purchases, as tormented parents cave into advertising-fuelled pleas. 

Remember if you don’t have junk in the house, kids can’t eat junk.

Oatmeal has long been regarded as a healthy addition to the diet – and not just in porridge – Oat Millers of Ireland which incorporates Flahavans, Odlums and Whites Speedicook, have got together to produce a Summer Recipe Collection – which is available online at  or contact  or Tel. 01-6789762, The Oat Millers of Ireland, Huband House, 16 Upper Mount St. Dublin 2.


Past Letters