A study conducted by the audit company PricewaterhouseCoopers in 2016 found that adult obesity is costing Malta €36 million a year. 

In an interview, Dr. Charmaine Gauci, the Public Health Superintendent, said that this study focused on the diseases that are caused by obesity. 

Dr. Gauci said that, according to the latest studies, 61 per cent of the Maltese adult population, that is over 18 years old, is either overweight or obese. When this percentage is compared to those of other countries, we can see that many have similar percentages. The rate in Ireland is 57.6 per cent, followed by Croatia (57.4 per cent), the Czech Republic (56.8 per cent), Greece (56.7 per cent) and Slovenia (56.6 per cent). 

Previous information put Malta at the top when it comes to excessive weight and obesity, but when children are taken into account the picture changes. According to the Childhood Obesity Surveillance Initiative, run by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and that focuses on children aged seven to eight, in Malta 37 per cent of boys are overweight or obese while for girls the rate is about 35 percent. 

When these figures are compared to those of other countries, we can see that, for boys, the country with the highest score is Cyprus with 43 per cent, followed by Greece, Italy and Spain with 42 per cent, San Marino (39 per cent) and Malta together with Croatia and Montenegro who have a percentage of 37 per cent. 

If we looked at the girls, Cyprus remains at the top with 43 per cent, followed by Spain (41 per cent), Greece and Italy (39 per cent) and Malta (35 per cent). 

The Public Health Superintendent said that the Government wants to see the trend go down and shall carry on with initiatives to mitigate the problems related to obesity across all ages within the Maltese population. 

Asked by Voice of the Workers what causes obesity and excessive weight, in spite of all the education campaigns at school and on the media, Dr. Gauci said that there are various factors that impact a person’s weight. She said that to analyse an individual one must look at the individual’s diet and level of physical activity. Talking of diet, the Maltese population has deviated from the Mediterranean diet. She said that the National Food Consumption Survey is currently being analysed and this will allow us to find out what the Maltese’s diet is and which food is contributing to the problem of excessive weight. 

Dr. Gauci said that physical exercise is very important and the Maltese people are not moving enough. The Superintendence works on the individual’s choice to follow the campaigns and provides a guideline to adults. The system has also been turned upside down and instead of the food pyramid, individuals are being educated about the amount that they should have on the plate and the portions one needs to eat to maintain a healthy diet. 

New guidelines were issued in the last few days together with a list of children’s portions and information on the best foods to eat to ensure that they live and develop well. 

Dr. Gauci said that these campaigns are being promoted on the media, especially the social media. A number of nutrition professionals are not only speaking on the radio and on television but are also giving talks and local councils and schools to ensure that the public is informed and better educated. 

The Public Health Superintendent added that the parents of schoolchildren are being taught how to prepare better lunches for their children. Here, the UĦM Voice of the Workers is reminded of a proposal that it had put forward for this year’s Budget. The union had proposed that a substantial lunch be given to the children for free and thus several problems would be eliminated. This incentive would offer a number of advantages, among them good quality food and a key in the fight against child obesity. 

In terms of figures, this proposal could lead to more than eight million lunches in a year for schoolchildren. European Union funds could be used to fund the initial investment in schools and the promotion of such a scheme. For the Government, it was calculated that this investment could generate €15 million for the economy. 

There is also the initiative that has been ongoing for a number of years where messages that can help schoolchildren opt for nutritious and good food are passed on through drama. 

Dr. Gauci said that there is a great deal of work being carried out in collaboration with other entities, including the local councils, to make the environment more attractive and pavements, for example, conducive to physical activity. The Superintendence is following the initiatives of the Healthy Weight for Life Strategy 2012 to fight the issue of obesity in adult as and children. A committee was set up in 2012 (once the Lifestyle Act was passed in January 2016), comprising professionals and officials from a number of entities whose job it is to create new ideas to address the issue of obesity in this country. Free programmes are being organised in local councils and health centres and people who have excess weight are benefiting from services on what is best for them to eat and are taking part in aerobics sessions. 

The Superintendence is working on two aspects: to reach the general population through education campaigns and initiatives and to help those who are overweight on an individual level. 

Besides, training is being held (which started two years ago, was continued last year and is being carried out this year) for professionals who work in the health sector, particularly for family doctors. This training programme is supported by the European Association for the Study of Obesity and representatives of this association came to Malta to offer this training.  

The Superintendence is working to establish certain criteria to ensure that the goals are met. When a Nationalist Government started working on the issue of obesity in 2008, it was noted that in tuck shops in schools all sorts of things were being sold. Subsequently there were initiatives in schools to list the types of food that are good for health and not good for health in the tender for tuck shops (which were out-sourced). The head of school needs to take the responsibility of ensuring that the tuck shop is operating against established criteria. 

Apart from this, the Superintendence is carrying out audits in schools where the environmental health inspectors visit to see the type of food that is being provided to the children. The parents are also vigilant and have often drawn the Superintendence’s attention who has taken immediate action. One year after the other the Superintendence has seen the tuck shops walk in line with the established guidelines on the provision of food for the students. 

Dr. Gauci also spoke about recipes intended for the parents which are simple enough to be accessed by all. In fact, a section was set up within the Superintendence, who, together with other entities, addresses the social determinants for education, jobs and housing. The Sector applied for social funds from the European Union and in March this year started working on a €15 million project that aims to address the relationship between obesity and lower-income parents and other factors that affect health.