Fat is a health issue…..

….Not just a feminist issue (Susie Orbach 1978 and 1982).

Obesity is going to be the world’s next biggest health problem apparently. Unlike starvation for example, which clearly doesn’t matter because rich western countries don’t suffer from it. Well, poor people in those countries may, but they don’t matter either. Starving people will die whereas fat westerners will cost the health services. [Or maybe there is another way to look at it?]

But it’s not even a new issue. More than ten years ago, one of my public health colleagues was bleating on about how we needed to do far more for obese people. At the time I was in charge of looking after people with cancer, and I had little sympathy for fat people who ate too much of the wrong food.

We all fought battles for our ‘own’ turf in the NHS, and obese people weren’t mine. People with life-threatening cancer were, and that’s where I wanted to see the money go towards.

One gets older and wiser, and stops being quite so fattist. So to untangle this one a little:

Apparently being overweight can cause back problems, put people at risk of diabetes type 2, heart problems, and presumably lots of other terrible illnesses. These days, most things put people at risk of lots of terrible illnesses. Certainly, eating, drinking, smoking, breathing etc are all risky things to do.

Some people can be overweight (ie outside the norm determined – by – who?) and be healthy. Probably far healthier than me. All that weight may well be muscle. They may be triathletes, or Olympic rowers, or shot-putters or whatever. Unlikely to be cyclists actually, as they are usually pretty slim, but that’s just an unscientific observation.

People are judged on their appearance. The reason why Orbach wrote about Fat is a Feminist Issue back in the 70s was about how women were expected to conform to the male stereotype object of a tall, slim, beautiful trophy and fat women were to be despised as they didn’t fit in with the ideal view of what a woman should look like.

Nothing has changed since then. Fat women still get more derision than fat men. And women are still expected to be tall, slim and beautiful. (I can manage the first two).

My view has changed. If people want to be fat, and accept the potential health risks, that’s up to them. If they are comfortable with being what is perceived as overweight, then it’s their choice.

Yes, I am one of the ones who finds it a pain in the neck having an extremely large person squashing me into the corner of a seat on the bus or the train or the ‘plane. Just like I don’t want to sit next to a wailing baby.

So I am obviously still inherently fattist, (and screaming babyist).

But the other day, I did a simplistic little calculator on the BBC web site – their most popular one at the moment, which gives you your BMI compared with the rest of your country and the rest of the world for your age group. It takes into account, age, height and weight. Not whether you drink, smoke, eat junk food, work out, take drugs etc etc. So it’s hardly gold standard, a BMI no more no less.

Here it is:

Where are you on the global fat scale?

It’s fun to play at. But that’s all. There’s more to life than being fitted into a box, assuming you can fit into it 😉

Gibraltar didn’t exist on the little game. What’s new? I tried Spain, the UK and out of curiosity, America. Mostly, 97/98% of women of my age had a higher BMI in those countries than I did. Probably a lot of younger ones too, but I didn’t bother trying that out. Spain, to my surprise, had a lower result than the other two. I think the order went USA, UK and then Spain with a load of countries inbetween. NZ was pretty high, ah I remember those kiwi shapes when I was last travelling around there.

I don’t remember seeing hugely fat people when I was growing up in the UK, but I keyed in my father’s results at one (fat) point in his life and he had a BMI of 31. He also had an extremely short friend who was virtually the same weight so his BMI would have been nearer 40. Obesity is not new.

Some people have big bones, some people have families who are predisposed to weigh more. My partner’s brother and sister are both ‘overweight’, he is not.

We wasted some time speculating on all of this. Exercise? diet? genes? a sweet tooth? junk food? drinking? quitting smoking? lack of knowledge about how to cook? lack of interest? lack of time? reluctance to walk, cycle or use public transport – preference to sit in a nice metal box?

For my part, I’ll stick to the fresh food diet I’ve had for the last 50 years, drink wine and cava, leave (alcoholic) spirits, junk food and sweets alone, and as I’ve never smoked, that’s not an issue. Walk, cycle, and swim, as the opportunity arises.

The answer to everything at the moment from the so-called experts is – eat your millions of fresh portions of fruit/veg a day – which clearly does not include chips. But what our dear guardians of health do not tell us, is that if you gannet a load of crisps, biscuits, sugar, chocolate and other sweeties, ice cream, commercial burgers, pre-made foods, meat, chicken, dairy products blah blah – you have an extremely good chance of putting on weight. No amount of five portions a day in the world will undo that.

And why do they not tell us that? Well, we wouldn’t want to upset the meat industry, the crisp industry, the sugary tomato sauce industry, the everything else that is really just the appalling big bucks pre-made food industry would we?

Just as a brief reminder, there are still people who are starving in the world while some of us are stuffing our faces with sheer and utter garbage. I am still reeling over food stamps in America being lobbied for by….well, … Pepsi, Kraft, Coca-Cola. Do I need to mention banks too? Link below – the Time article.


1) Governments are duplicitous. (We knew that)

2) The processed and junk food business is big, global, with tentacles everywhere.

3) Advertising works (because some people believe it).

4) If people want to be fat and ‘overweight’ that is their choice and they should not have to conform to a societal model. Nor should people be judged on their weight. Or their appearance at all.

5) Me, for all the nosy ones who want to know? I’m right at the bottom of the BMI table for a woman of my age. Depending on the fluctuation in my weight, I’m equivalent to an Ethiopian or a Bangladeshi. I could drop dead tomorrow. What value is my BMI then?

Background links:

BBC report about weight gain more damaging than population increase

Food stamps and big business in Time article

More links about food stamps and who it is really benefiting on Philosopher Mouse of the Hedge (bottom of post)

About roughseasinthemed

I write about my life as an English person living in Spain and Gibraltar, on Roughseas, subjects range from politics and current developments in Gib to book reviews, cooking and getting on with life. My views and thoughts on a variety of topics - depending on my mood of the day - can be found over on Clouds. A few pix are over on Everypic - although it is not a photoblog. And of course my dog had his own blog, but most of you knew that anyway. Pippadogblog etc
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21 Responses to Fat is a health issue…..

  1. I did the test – I am perfect weight for someone my age but just not tall enough!


    • LOL!! Does that mean I can call you Fatty? Oh!! I never said that!! Someone took over my keyboard. I on the other hand, am where I’ve always been, borderline perfect and underweight! So why don’t all my skinny clothes fit me any more? 😀


  2. bluonthemove says:

    There is an interesting series on the BBC right now called “The men who made us fat”. One point it makes is that it is the legal requirement of every board director of a public company to do everything in their power to make money and increase shareholder value.

    In the context of the food industry, this means that they are legally bound to get us to eat more of their products than we did the year before. Seems they are doing this extremely well. The programme also talks about the big mistake which is “low fat”. These low fat products just have the fat replaced by sugar, and quite often by “High fructose corn syrup” also known as glucose or fructose syrup at least within the UK. It is roughly half the price of refined sugar.

    High fructose corn syrup has been shown to have addictive properties similar to heroin. Low fat products are marketed as healthy, so people don’t give a second thought to eating 6 portions at one sitting; its good for me, right.

    Another factor in weight gain is conditions such as depression. People who are depressed will eat more, and mainly of the wrong things. Seasonally Affected Disorder (SAD) for example, actually creates a craving for carbohydrates, particularly of the cake and biscuit variety. My BMI fortunately is 29, so whilst over weight atleast I’m not obese. But I do need to move somewhere sunny to keep the SAD at bay.


    • The comment about the replacement of fat with a sugar substitute is amazing, although it’s clear directors are there to maximise company profits for shareholders. But if I wanted to go on a diet, the last think I would do would be to buy something off a supermarket shelf. It is the point about lifestyle change though, and how many people just do not cook fresh food, qv comments from some of the American bloggers below.

      Does SAD actually create the craving for carbs or is it just because it is winter? And cold and wet and all the rest of it in the UK, so one would expect to eat more carbs. I always used to lose weight slightly in winter and put it on in summer which was the reverse of most people. Burning up the carbs to keep warm? Who knows, not my specialty. But people who don’t eat cakes and biscuits won’t suddenly start eating them to bump up the carbs. Well, this person never did anyway. I did have potatoes twice yesterday!


      • bluonthemove says:

        I’m sure you’ve never eaten a low fat yoghurt in your life. The comment is aimed at people who buy snacks, they see the low fat alternative and immediately assume it is healthier and therefore they can eat more of them. Some Americans of my acquaintance eat their evening meal around 5pm, which is then followed a few hours later by snacking up until bed time.

        As for SAD, yes they say it does create the craving for carbs over and above what is natural for the winter. For me, its mainly putting a little extra rice or pasta on, or a few more potatoes. I’m not a biscuit or crisps person, but in winter sometimes chocolate jumps into my shopping basket. I normally lose up to a stone in the summer, but in the last couple of years the summer hasn’t been long enough to achieve that.

        Since people have mentioned health care costs, I’d point out the biggest debate currently in the UK, is how can we fund the care of the elderly, especially those with dementia. This is a huge cost, and it is hard to see where the money will come from. We are just beginning to see early stage research suggesting that vegetarians are more likely to develop dementia than people who eat meat of a similar age.

        This is partly because vegetarians will live longer than meat eaters on average, but there also seem to be other factors at play. If people who drink alcohol and eat meat are going to be surcharged for NHS treatment for heart/liver disease (which I know dear roughseas you are not suggesting), then shouldn’t the vegetarians out there be surcharged for dementia care ?


        • I’ve eaten very few yoghurts. Usually on the occasion I have an upset stomach and then I go for a bifidus version. No sugar, no nothing etc etc. Could do with a decent vegan one.

          Snacks? Please do explain? 🙂 What are they??

          Naughty chocolate to jump into your basket, do hope it is green and blacks dark one.

          Interesting studies, and where are the links from the extremely biased british medical world? Perhaps we should offset the dementia costs for veggies with the lower cancer/heart disease/obesity cost?

          It is just so boring being a dietarian minority (have I just made up a new description?). Or even any minority actually. So people don’t think the same as me. Do I care?

          From experience of older veggies, which is limited, the vegan one I did know at 80 something was sharp as nails. I’ve known an awful lot of meat eaters go off the rails. You knew I would say that. True though.

          Oh and incidentally I really think UK health debates are a load of shite tosh. I have heard them from arsehole to breakfastime and they never achieved any value. Partly because people rarely thought outside their school book.

          I really don’t care who is charged, so long as it isn’t skinny, vegetarian, non-smoking, cycling, walking, swimming me. Should I add my degrees into that list? And the places I have lived?

          Oh, where did you cite the report about dementia? 🙂 Just in case you missed my request above.


          • bluonthemove says:

            I don’t have access to the data sources I had access to three weeks ago 😦

            However, the basic science is that even a small deficiency of Vitamin B12 can cause probelms with dementia in later life, and whilst aware vegetarians can consume foods to which vitamin B12 has been added or even take vitamin B12 tablets, many do not.

            The condition can also be made worse if there is also a deficiency of Vitamin D, not likely to be a problem in sunny Gibraltar, but the Scottish Health Board are looking at adding Vitamin D to bread, such is the problem there with Vitamin D levels in the winter, with the very short days and bad weather.


          • Ah shame. Oh well, I had me a look and found some info. It’s years since I read about B12, and we tended to get ours from yeast extract and soya milk (to which it is often added), plus eggs and any dairy produce. While I’m happy to confess to being slightly off the wall, I won’t blame it on lack of B12.

            Adding things to bread? There are going to be more supplements in bread than yeast, flour and water. Don’t start me on the folic acid debate. I thought it had actually been added – it was being talked about years ago when I was still in the UK, but it seems it hasn’t. Yet. Is it my fault if pregnant women don’t eat the right food? I have no shortage of folic acid in my diet tyvm nanny state, and I don’t want it imposed on me. I do remember reading about the excess of folic acid v low B12 effect too. It will be back to breadmaking with folic acid free flour…..

            I was going to say perhaps B12 should be added to bread in the best interests of vegans – but someone has beaten me to it – an extremely biased article about how ‘we know best and everything under the sun should be added to bread,’ or words to that effect:

            Click to access 16_Folic-acid.pdf

            Public health doctors have nothing better to do than meddle in peoples’ lives. We had a discussion at work once, and someone gave a presentation on ‘What has public health ever done for us since they invented drainage/sanitation?’ or some similar title. I’m beginning to think they were right.


  3. Must find that BBC program! There were few fat kids when I was growing up – now they seem to be everywhere. Too may cokes and potato chips available? Those luxuries were rare for us. We had “boring” fresh veggies, fruits, and the farm diet. Now avoid fructose and processed foods and eat sensible portions…but you’ll have to pry ice cream out of my cold dead hands!
    My grandmother was huge huge huge (thyroid issues, but very active and lived a long time) but none of her children ever were. (But those memories of her keeps me on guard.)
    My daughter is a surgeon who often treats those extremely obese patients. She says there are many reason people get so large – but mainly loading in too many calories for activity level. You can get fat on protein drinks through a straw if you drink enough of them.
    One note. People can live as they wish, but when you get sick resulting from your own actions don’t demand I pay for your health care and keep. Make your choices and deal with the results yourself. You got a brain, use it.
    Great post as usual.


    • There are a mix here in Gib, but I would say far more skinny ones than fat, and very few obese ones. But, there are a lot of outside activities for children (there isn’t that much else to do apart from smoke dope and drink rum and coke in the car parks….) which hopefully helps. Plus there is a Spanish influence in the cooking which is far healthier than the UK style diet. On the BMI measure I looked at, Spain was well below the UK (which was well below the USA). I did have soft drinks as a kid, mainly lemonade. Don’t remember having crisps. Took an apple to school for break time. The only frozen veg we ever had was peas, everything else was fresh. You can have my portion of ice cream too if you want!!

      From time to time there is often discussion about whether or not we should be treating people on the UK NHS who have smoking or alcohol related diseases. With the exception of cirrhosis of the liver, lung and oesophageal cancers, it is hard to specify whether there is one sole or major cause. And you can get lung cancer without having had a cigarette in your life. Sadly.

      It’s a complex issue looking at whether someone should contribute to their health costs because of lifestyle choices. Would I say someone with colon cancer (for example) should pay part of their costs because they have had a diet high in red meat and low in fresh vegetables and fibre? Very very difficult. A totally different post in itself.

      Obesity is perhaps easier to look at, if there is no clear medical cause (eg thyroid problems as you say) then diet must be a huge (!) factor. Is junk food addictive? (see the comment about high fructose corn syrup above). The trouble is your penultimate comment, some people may well have a brain, but seems to me they have never learned to used it, and even people who have degrees sit on the sofa with 2 litre bottles of coke eating crisps/chips. The problem will improve when governments stop cosying up to the big processed/junk food industries……. And thanks 🙂


    • bluonthemove says:

      The final episode of the 3 part series was shown on BBC 2 at 9pm on Thursday 12th July. The following short summary comes from Radio Times.
      “This Innocent smoothie has more calories in it than this can of Coke,” explains presenter Jacques Peretti patiently, at a stroke summing up his final episode. It’s an odd paradox: we’re surrounded by low-fat foods, but higher-fat people. As a Harvard professor explains, this is because calorific foodstuffs are given a “health halo” – branded as fresh, high in fibre, or one of your five a day, when (obviously, when you think about it) none of those stops them being fattening.

      From the Sunny Delight scandal to the late-1990s explosion in organic foods, Peretti explores how the food industry took health concerns about food and obesity as a dramatic business opportunity, and dodged attempts (such as the “traffic light” labelling system) to inform consumers. It’s a fascinating piece of investigative TV and Peretti deserves a medal.”


      • Sunny Delight!! I remember that – and no, needless to state I didn’t buy it, but my secretaries did. It was full of junk!!!! They thought it was healthy. Dear me. (Bangs head on own desk and not that of secretaries’).

        To be fair, at least smoothies and juice (pure not concentrate) don’t include too much junk – just high in fruit sugar. But so much easier to drink juice than eat fruit. … [hastily hides ruby breakfast tropicana carton which wasn’t half as good as I expected]


  4. free penny press says:

    I have a few observations regarding the obesity in America.
    1- we eat garbage and exercise almost nill to none especially kids. They stay indoors on computers where as when i was a child it was outside I must be. You rarely saw an overweight child when I was growing up.
    2- Animals are injected with growth hormones and you can not tell me there is not a direct correlation between early puberty in boys & girls and obesity .
    3-The medical field has almost made it acceptable to be overweight. I bet if services were denied or higher fees charged for those who blatantly (non-medical related obesity) choose to be obese alot of this would slow down. we are an overweight nation and it’s quite sad.
    I don’t judge, sneer at or degrade overweight people but I do shake my head and wonder why…


    • Interesting views there.
      1) I mixed my time with playing outside, reading inside, and watching some television. Computers are to blame for a lot of things. I get more done when I am not in front of one, so I can imagine the impact (ie not wanting to leave the screen) on a child.
      2) Don’t start me on the meat industry!! I think people understand the concept of food chain but basically don’t care. Look at BSE and its impact on people. It’s a bit like saying we would rather eat a perfect looking lettuce sprayed with Agent Orange and no nibbled edges or icky snails/slugs inside.
      3) That is a really interesting thought that hadn’t occurred to me, although given that my colleague quoted above was trying to rack it up the agenda, I should have thought of it. But I guess in America, we are looking at a different funding system, so why not make it acceptable and then there will be more work for medics…..
      I am surprised how obese people in the UK have become (apparently) although the nearest I get to seeing any of them is when they are – slowly – walking up and down Main Street.
      I wonder if there is some denial in it too. Half a stone should make no difference either way. And then it gets to be a stone, or two…. but you look around, and other people look the same so you think maybe there isn’t a problem. Habits are hard to change.


  5. EllaDee says:

    Great post & fun exercise. Very interactive 🙂 For my age, I’m most like someone from Botswana! Below (63%) average for Australia & above average (60%) for the rest of the world… I was a skinny kid & teenager, so I can say I’m unhappy now having curves. My primary focus is health & fitness so what makes me passionate is education & awareness vs advertising & consumerism. Be whatever you are and be happy but be the best you can be and know the what, why & how. Oh, and don’t be suckered into throwing your money away.


    • Thanks and I went back to do the exercise again this morning – made myself younger (little difference) and added Aus, NZ and Canada into the equation. Same results as the UK for Aus and NZ, Canada was a couple of points different, I had a lower BMI than 95% of people there.
      I was skinny for most of my life – it’s only over the last few years my shape has changed slightly. Old middle age for you. I daresay it will change again. But the weight is currently what it has always been so I don’t know how I’ve got bigger!!
      I do think you have hit the nail on the head though. Education and awareness is key, but it’s not just believing government pronouncements, it’s investigating the issues for yourself – and that’s what people don’t do 😦 And then there is the ethical side. Many people aren’t interested in fair trade, or buying locally – who cares if food comes from a country with a bad human rights regime so long as the food is cheap? And has spent days in refrigeration, almost certainly picked unripe to survive the journey, and is enclosed in plastic. In terms of food, the world is going backwards (and in terms of a few other issues too).


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  7. Totty says:

    I am also an Ethiopian at 5’6″ and 55k, but my OH is considered an obese American with a BMI of 30 because he is also 5’6″ but 84k. What this little formula doesn’t take into account is body proportion; his family have very short tibias, and his legs are at least 6″ shorter than mine….put his weight into the boxes with a height of 6 foot and suddenly his BMI is 28 and he is a Rumanian!
    We both eat the same quantity at mealtimes, we don’t buy processed food but cook everything from scratch, and the only differences in our diet are that I love butter and put large quantities on bread and veg while he uses low fat spread on his toast and prefers his bread and veg un-annointed. He makes up the calorie difference by having a spoonful of sugar in his tea.


    • Good to see you are still around. Us Ethiopians need to stick together. 😉

      It’s silly isn’t it? Taking someone’s height, weight, age and gender and comparing it with people around the world is of no added value as far as I can see, apart from giving me blog post material.

      Of course there are so many other things to take into account, as I said above. You can be an obese person from Tonga or Samoa but your life expectancy is better than someone from Ethiopia. So where’s the added value in the low BMI?

      While you and I may follow different diets in terms of ingredients, I doubt our cooking is that different. I’ve never understood why people live on ready-made meals because they taste appalling. And then you have to add veg and loads of other things, so why bother? (apart from sheer brain dead desperation which I will confess to on occasion). It would be far easier to stick a couple of chops under the grill or some fish or whatever. Hardly difficult. But food full of junk? One reason we eat out less than once a year, and the last two have been a) pizza and b) Indian.

      My partner likes butter, but only on bread and toast. I usually leave it alone. He throws vinagre de jerez over everything liberally, followed by tabasco. Am I going to worry that he doesn’t appreciate the divine subtle flavouring of my cooking? Am I hell. If we’re both happy eating it our own way, who cares. I tend to chuck lemon juice on my food, and a home-made dressing on our salads. We won’t make BMI 30 in a hurry, but if we were eating well, and felt well, I can’t say I would be that worried. I do think BMI is a very flawed and unhelpful standard.

      It is this terrible dumbing down of society that seriously worries me. Your BMI needs to be between 18.5 and 25. You need to eat your five portions a day, that means six apricots or seven strawberries or .. or .. or. Here is the list of what you should eat.. and people actually follow it instead of thinking for themselves.. meanwhile they are probably eating a McDonalds for lunch.

      All people need to do is to learn to cook a balanced diet, whatever diet they choose to follow. Pretty simple. But apparently not.


  8. Vicky says:

    That’s interesting.
    81% less than UK national average of women my age, but in my 40’s I was 94% less.
    I know my weight started to creep up in my 50’s, and I tried everything to stay the same weight without any joy at all 😦 I’ve given up now


    • Interesting how much we change as we age. I stayed the same for ages, and then suddenly my clothes wouldn’t fit. And yet, jumping on the scales specifically to double check for this, I was the same 55kg that I’ve always been. With a different shape. If I don’t weight any more, how come I’m bigger? Must be middle aged flab I guess 😀

      And where is the holiday blog post might I ask????


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