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Bridging Europe
Health in Central Europe

Obesity in Poland
14.7.2006 - Michal Zajac

In traditional East European societies being overweight once symbolised wealth and success. In Poland, for instance, a fat child meant a healthy and happy child. Of course during the food shortages under communism getting fat was a bit of a challenge. But in the new free market reality, extra kilos are no longer a virtue. In Poland nearly twenty per cent of the population suffers from obesity. That's comparable with western societies but it's alarming when compared to the condition of Poles two generations back. Michal Zajac reports from Warsaw:

Watching your weight in front of the mirror is fast becoming a national craze in Poland. But more and more Poles don't stop there. They are becoming familiar with medical terms such as the Body Mass Index - which is a reliable indicator of total body fat, related to the risk of disease and death. Especially those who are part of the emerging middle class, visit nutritionists such as Doctor Magdalena Bialkowska of the Food and Nutrition Institute in Warsaw. She gives them warning signals when she thinks their weight problem is getting out of control.

"My weight is 100 kilos, height - 170cm. I divide 100 by 1.7 cross 1.7. The result is 34, this person is obese. 27 is putting on a yellow light. Among patients with BMI above 27 it is very easy to find diseases connected with obesity."

Apart from adversely affecting one's physical condition and self-esteem, obesity may lead to a number of other serious diseases. Heart problems, such as heart attacks, irregular heart rhythm or high blood pressure, are more common in adults who are obese, over 80% of people with diabetes are overweight or obese, the occurrence of certain types of cancer and arthritis is higher. Treatment requires changing the patient's lifestyle completely. Determination and motivation are the key to success. You are much more likely to succeed if you turn to others for help. Renata Sledziewska regularly attends meetings of the Weight Watchers support group.

"This is a kind of a group where you can discuss what you eat, or the problems that you have had. You discuss and share your experiences with other people: how can I cook with fewer calories, how can I eat to diversify my diet. The biggest problem for people who are trying to lose weight is discipline. These meetings help us to lose weight together and then share good solutions."

Poles' lifestyles have changed considerably over the past decades. They live faster, but don't exercise enough. 19% of Poles suffer from obesity and the figure has been changing steadily. Taking into account our rather passive lifestyle, to enjoy the good health of our grandparents we would have to cover the distance of a marathon every week, which translates into 6 kilometers a day. Needless to say, very few people do so. In addition, more and more frequently problems with obesity in Poland begin at a very young age. Dr Wadyslaw Grzeszczuk is worried that children are no longer interested in outdoor activities.

"Young people spend a lot of time in front of their computers, playing games and surfing the net, but this does not involve physical effort, hence there is no energy loss."

So, apart from eating less and moving more, what rules must we follow in our everyday life to stop putting on weight? Dr Magdalena Bialkowska:

"A very bad habit is to eat between meals. It is the first step to becoming overweight and then obesity. The second thing is too much fat. If I prepare dinner in a proper way, it will contain 400 calories. If I use extra fat or cream the calories can be tripled. We need to eat slowly. We should eat one meal over a period of 20 minutes because after 20 minutes we don't feel hunger."

And what is it that prevents most of us from following those simple tips?

"The problem is time, conviction and the style of living is very important. We don't move, we don't walk so we have to change our lifestyle. And this is what Weight Watchers is trying to teach us - move more, eat better. It's not eat less, it's eat better, and it's not just about losing weight for one month or two, because bad habits return fast."

Researchers are warning that each excessive kilogram shortens our life. Moreover, when one's improper eating habits are accompanied by a lack of physical exercise, the risk of early death rises by 57% in the case of women and 49% in the case of men. So if losing weight proves too difficult, the least we should do is not to allow ourselves to grow any fatter.

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