Junk food and obesity epidemic in UK and Nigeria

By Casmir Igbokwe

Published: Sunday, 15 Jul 2007

“What sort of food is Welsh rarebit?” That was the question my younger brother, Chidi, asked me recently. A friend of his, he said, visited a prestigious restaurant in Cardiff on the invitation of a rich friend. Among the dishes on the menu was Welsh rarebit or rabbit. This Nigerian immediately ordered it. The mere thought that he would eat real bush meat from the forest of Wales made him salivate. But when the waiter served the food, he got highly disappointed.

Welsh rarebit is a dish of melted cheese on toast. Some other traditional Welsh specialties include Welsh lamb, Welsh chocolate, Welsh cakes (flat pancakes covered in sugar) and Laver bread. The importance of food in Welsh culture is such that the humble leek is the national emblem of Wales. And each year, the nation hosts over 40 food fairs and festivals. The Cardiff International Food and Drink Festival seems to be the most popular. This year, the festival started on Friday and ends on Sunday.

In the UK generally, food is cheap. No matter how poor you are, what to eat may never be a problem. With £5 (about N1,250), you can buy food items that will last you for one week. You can get a pack of chicken drumstick containing about 10 big pieces at £1 (N250). Big supermarkets such as Tesco, Lidl and Sainsbury often offer cheaper alternatives. And if one is lucky to come when the expiry dates on the food items are near, one could get a £2 (about N500) worth of potato, for instance, for 20p (N50).

Some Nigerian students in Cardiff even find it cheaper to travel to London, a distance of about three hours, to buy some Nigerian staples. An MBA student, Felix Morka, says a £6 worth of meat in Cardiff could go for as cheap as £1 in London.

I must confess that I am not a very good cook. As such, I’ve never bothered going to London to buy meat. And being a traditional Nigerian man, I was brought up to believe that cooking is the exclusive preserve of women. That was why I ate much of Welsh rabbit in my first few months in Cardiff. I had also eaten a lot of cheeseburger, chips and fish, sandwich and fried chicken. A fast food outlet called Miss Millie’s was my favourite because it gave generous discounts. I kept getting fatter and fatter then even when I knew I was not feeding well. Pimples became a permanent feature on my face.

The first attempt I made at cooking in Cardiff was a disaster. I nearly found myself in the hospital after consuming some plates of beans I prepared myself. It appeared I didn’t cook the food well. Hence, I had some burning sensation in my stomach, which became ballooned with excessive gas. I have since learnt my lessons.

One big problem cheap food is causing in Britain is wastage. The amount of good food thrown away at restaurants and some other places almost equals the amount eaten. For reasons best known to them, some people don’t get to eat the food they ordered for. Some just take a few spoons and abandon the food. The rest are thrown away. There is no question of keeping them in the fridge and warming them the following morning. Don’t blame them. Their economy is strong. They can afford more expensive fast food. They also get a lot of social security.

Little wonder the number of oversized human beings I have seen in the UK is frightening. And the tragedy is that the fatter they are, the higher they get addicted to fatty foods. You need to visit any MacDonald’s or Burger King to appreciate the enormity of this problem. Obese people are the ones who consume more burgers and “Monster meal” (a combination of chips, fried chicken drumbeats, burgers and a big bottle of coke.)

Obesity is reportedly rising faster in Britain than in any other country in Western Europe. About 50 per cent of the adult population is said to be obese. The World Health Organisation estimates that obesity has reached epidemic proportions globally. More than a billion adults are overweight, at least 300 million of them clinically obese.

A recent report in the Western Mail, a Cardiff based newspaper, said more and more families now create downstairs bedrooms or fit stair lifts for their obese children. The adaptations, the newspaper reported, were being made for children with weight problems so bad that they could not cope with stairs. These families are also said to be making extra-strong beds and chairs and creating special bathrooms and bedroom adaptations for their obese youngsters.

Although many factors can cause obesity, the greatest cause is overfeeding. Many people tend to eat more carbohydrate and fatty foods without any form of exercise. In Nigeria, some people do sedentary work from 8am to 5pm. They retire afterwards to a joint to eat nkwobi, isiewu and goat meat pepper soup. They wash this down with some bottles of beer. For their children, fast food is the fad. Ice cream is the appetiser. Fried rice or meat pie is the main dish. And coke or chocolate, the dessert.

For those who cannot afford the nkwobi luxury, it is garri in the morning, fufu in the afternoon and amala in the night. The problem is that some of the overweight people think getting fat is evidence of good living. But in most cases, it is poverty that is at play. According to the United Nations’ Development Programme, nine out of 10 Nigerians live on less than $2 (about N254) per day. This means that only a negligible few can afford five fruits a day recommended by nutritionists. Popcorn is cheap. And so, it has become the major fruit we take.

This partly explains the upsurge in cardiovascular diseases in the world today. Diabetes, gall-bladder disease and arthritis are some other health problems associated with obesity. Experts say the sufferers are sluggish, often encounter complications during surgery and tend to age faster than other people.

Thank God for the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control. It has done some good job in putting some sanity into our food and drug business. But more needs to be done. In the UK, for instance, almost every food item on display must show its nutritional content. They have also tried as much as possible to reduce salt and sugar in the content of most of their processed food. In most developed world, ice cream or coke does not contain much sugar. Neither do their sardines contain much salt. If any food contains some ingredients people are likely to be allergic to, there will be a warning on that. And so when you choose to eat vegetable salad or pork meat, chips and chicken or Welsh rarebit, you are well aware of the nutritional value or dangers of what you are eating.

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