Fighting Obesity

17 Oct 2003

First it was cigarettes, then it was alcohol, and now it’s obesity. The latest human vice would seem to be food. Too much food: 16 million Europeans are overweight, and there are four million obese people in Italy. So, reacting to the alarm bells ringing around the world, we in Italy have also found our standard-bearer for the anti-flab crusade. It’s Girolamo Sirchia, our Minister of Health who—while our long-suffering health system staggers to cope with hospitals that don’t work, the harassment of having to take your own sheets and ever more expensive medicines that you can’t obtain—has decided to rails against Italians who eat too much at the restaurant, who don’t observe Friday as a day of fasting and who only pay lip service to the Mediterranean diet. He has even created a task force to ‘measure the food served in restaurants’ and halve the size of portions served, issuing warnings and imposing decrees that are the dressed-up advice of old family doctors. As if that weren’t enough, he has also come up with the revolutionary idea of listing the calories of each dish next to the price on restaurant menus.

What a laugh! It’ll mean going to the restaurant with your calculator in your pocket, not to find out how much the costly euro has inflated the bill, but to work out whether our order exceeds the number of calories prescribed by ‘Doctor Girolamo’. I can imagine the joy and enthusiasm of my many restaurateur friends at the idea of getting fitted out with a computer to calculate nutritional values each time they prepare their latest creations. This war on obesity is beginning to get tedious, just like the thousands of news reports on the hot weather that had us gasping all through the summer. It’s being overdone. As a result of the yuppie fashions of the 1980s and TV programs in which empty faces perch on matchstick bodies, anyone who is a bit overweight already suffers a subtle form of social censure. It’s the famous Mediaset style, which even the company’s boss Silvio Berlusconi fails to emulate. To think that a heavy build used to be a symbol of social status, after all a powerful man in Sicily used to be described as a uomo de panza, a man with belly.

I ‘m not saying that the problem of obesity should be underrated, but Sirchia’s obsessive approach and the measures he has announced, together with current social models, are certainly not the solution. Why doesn’t the minister do what he did with tobacco and ban advertisements of the products he’s criticizing? Ads targeting children which encourage bad and harmful food habits. Eating should remain a pleasurable activity, and we have a duty to point out that it’s not only nutritional tables that define food; it’s also organoleptic properties, where and how it’s produced, whether it contain additives and preservatives. ‘Doctor Girolamo’ should be providing this information—not harassing fat people. He should be tackling the people who sell and produce food that is not only lacking in taste but also damages a healthy diet. He should name the companies involved.

We should certainly eat less, but it is equally true that we should eat better, and in particular, we should know the reasons why. It is no use having a task force of nutritional experts reducing portions and preparing menus full of obscure numbers that don’t mean anything to most people. Nor do we need a tax on food. Heaven forbid! Why aren’t proper food education programs introduced, explaining how food is produced and exposing the junk produced by some food companies? A program teaching people how to use their senses to recognize food quality, to understand if we can help or harm ourselves, to understand, even by making mistakes, that it is possible to happily practice moderation in all aspects of our lives? A program which could maybe directly involve our small farmers, our valiant producers? There’s absolutely no point in serving half a portion of pasta in our factory and school canteens, if it continues to be of depressingly poor quality, heated up and seasoned with flavorings and preservatives. After that, a fast-food hamburger with fries will continue to appear a forbidden dream in comparison—without reservations or moderation.

First printed in La Stampa on 7/10/2003

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