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Localised fat

Asturias is the region with the highest proportion of overweight people in Spain.
Asturias is the region with the highest proportion of overweight people in Spain. / R. C.
  • Asturias, Galicia and Andalucía have the highest number of overweight people in Spain. The fault does not lie in cuisine or climate, but with income and education standards

The most famous dishes in Asturias are 'cachopo' (fried veal fillets with ham and cheese) and 'fabes', a bean stew with plenty of rich trimmings, made to bolster you during the harsh winter months. In Andalucía, the local cuisine is gazpacho and fried fish, light meals that are perfect for keeping cool under the hot sun.

However, both of these communities find themselves among the top end of the rankings for obesity in Spain. Asturias is in first place, home to 25.7% of the country's population of obese adults; while Andalucía is third, (just behind Galicia) with 24.4%. This epidemic comes hand in hand with serious health problems, such as diabetes, strokes and cancer, as well as enormous economic costs to health services and employers.

According to data, the root cause is not related to geography or climate, rather a combination of factors centred around income and standards of education. “Eating badly is cheaper,” declares dietary nutritionist Aitor Sánchez.

The source of this data is the Study of Nutrition for the Population of Spain (ENPE), which studied a sample of almost 4,000 people, aged between 25 and 64, from all over the country. In addition to questioning them about their food and exercise habits, the researchers, coordinated by professor Carmen Pérez Rodrigo of the University of the Basque Country, registered the height and weight of all participants to determine their Body Mass Index (BMI), which is calculated by dividing weight (in kilogrammes) by height (in metres) and squaring the result. A number higher than 25 indicates that the subject is overweight and higher than 30 means they are obese. The researchers also measured abdominal obesity - the most dangerous form - which is found in men with a waistline of in excess of 102 centimetres and in women with one over 88. The results are alarming, especially among men, and they worsen with age.

Following closely behind the three regions with highest obesity levels are Murcia (23.9%), Madrid (23.8%), Aragón (23.7%), Castilla-La Mancha (23.6%), Castilla-León (22.1%), Navarra (20.9%) and the Canaries (20.1%), though in previous studies this final percentage has been higher.

However, even the regions with lower rates of obesity - Balearic Islands (10.5%), Catalonia (15.5%), Basque Country (16.8%), Cantabria (17.6%), La Rioja (17.9%), Extremadura (19%) and Valencia (19.8%) - are not exempt from the problem. Aside from the Balearic Islands (with 42.7%), at least half of citizens in each of these communities are overweight, ranging from 50.7% in the Basque Country to 66.8% in Asturias.

The study is consistent with others that have come before it - like the European Health Survey in Spain of 2014 - and shows similar regional patterns. Pérez Rodrigo, president of the Spanish Society for Community Nutrition, admits that they lack concrete data, but stresses that there is a relation between low standards of education and low income and excessive bodyweight.

The most prosperous autonomous communities are also those that suffer least from the obesity epidemic. With the exception of Madrid and Aragón, the regions with an above-average GDP - the Basque Country, Navarra, Catalonia, La Rioja and the Balearic Islands - are the 'thinnest'.

Aitor Sánchez, blogger and authour of 'Mi dieta cojea', (My diet is bad), rejects the idea that a healthy diet is costly, but does admit that that foodstuffs with a lower nutritional quality like sweets, baked goods and ultra-processed products, are both low in price and taste good. They contain more sugar, more salt, more fat and more flavourings, are convenient, as often need little preparation, and they last longer than fresh products. For these reasons, their production is in high demand. “Twelve croissants at the supermarket cost the same as one avocado,” Sanchez explains.

Pérez Rodrigo points out that, though its too soon to make any conclusions, it has been noticed that within the population groups where the common diet is that of the Mediterranean - more fruits, vegetables and olive oil and less red, processed meat and sweets - there are fewer recorded overweight people. “It's not the post-war era Mediterranean diet,” he explains, because lifestyles have changed and cars and sedentary work environments have reduced the energy we expend during the day. “In the Basque Country at the start of the 20th century, a person would consume a kilogramme of bread every day. Today we only eat about 70 or 80 grammes.”

Standards of education are also a determinant in what we choose to eat. According to the aforementioned European survey, rates of obesity in people with a basic level of education are double that of those who go to university (22.76% and 9.62%, respectively). This trend is even more prominent among the elderly and among women, where rates are tripled.

Dietary nutritionist Juan Revenga, author of 'Adelgázame, miéntame' (Make me thinner, lie to me), believes that consumers receive biased and contradictory information about food, which makes it difficult to make sensible decisions. For example, the same food companies that sell high-calorie and dangerous products, like fizzy drinks, sweets, cold meats and snacks, are those that have collaborated with the government in their Hábitos de Vida Saludable (Healthy Life Habits) project. “Excess weight is a global problem, with a myriad causes, and we aren't going to find a solution without willingness from politicians”, he stresses.

New laws

So what have politicians done about this issue? The Ministry of Health's Nutrition, Physical Activity and Prevention of Obesity Strategy (NAOS) centres on analysing the problem and raising awareness through campaigns, but international experiences indicate that the only way to defeat obesity is all-out war. This is the focus of the Junta de Andalucía, the first region to put their plan of action into law.

The new project will reach the whole of society, with measures that mean restaurants must create healthier menus and offer a range of portion sizes, free drinking water will be available in public spaces and in bars, food packets will have clearer ingredient lists, bike riding will be promoted and adverts promoting calorific foods to children will be limited. Schools will be required to teach at least five hours of physical education per week, promote health as part of the curriculum and provide healthy school meals.

The governments of Asturias and Galicia have focused their plan on child obesity. The first, with a pilot project to promote sports in schools and the second, with the 'Xermola' plan, which seeks to prevent, detect and treat the problem while children are still young.

The Spanish Society for the Study of Obesity seeks financial help for a study surrounding excess weight, which will include the measuring of body fat using bioimpedance techniques. Its vice president, Diego Bellido, explains that BMI - which only takes weight and height into account - is not a viable tool to indicate whether someone is overweight. People with a high percentage of muscle mass, such as body builders, may have the same BMI as someone who is obese.