Taiwanese are getting fatter. The evidence is everywhere. Waistlines are bulging and the population is becoming rotund because of its addiction to fast — and cheap — food.
The Bureau of Health Promotion says that 44 percent of the adult population is overweight, if not obese. This figure is surprising in a country that has a tradition of eating mostly rice with a little meat and vegetables, but if one looks at the amount of processed food that the average person eats on a day-to-day basis, it starts to make sense.
In days gone by, Taiwanese had a healthy diet. For the most part, it was a diet of vegetables, fruit, rice, pork and fish. US doctors held the country up as a model to emulate, telling Americans that if they moved to Taiwan, they would likely kick their bad dietary habits and become healthy eaters.
No more. These days many people are accustomed to buying food that is either canned, bagged or boxed, with all the preservatives, extra salt and trans fats that this entails. In addition, night market culture has become ubiquitous, competing with international burgers and chicken chains to turn Taiwanese into portly addicts.
Fast food is not unhealthy as long as its consumed in moderation. However, this generally holds true only as long as people exercise to offset their hamburgers, stinky tofu or sesame hot pot. A study of more than 20,000 adult men and women found that only 53 percent had exercised in the past two weeks, meaning many of those eating fast food had been doing nothing to burn off all those calories.
The Department of Health is working to address the obesity epidemic by restricting television commercials for fast food, forcing fast food restaurants to include nutritional values on their packaging and limiting the content of fast food promotion campaigns.
These regulations are a good start, but do they go far enough?
How to eat healthily is common knowledge. Instead of bags of chips from 7-Eleven, once should eat fruit, vegetables, grains, legumes and a litte meat. It sounds easy, but not everybody follows this principle. For instance, how does a person get a full range of vegetables when he or she is working a 12-hour shift in the middle of a science park? It’s not easy. Most people in this situation rely on lunch boxes from convenience stores, which have processed vegetables and meat.
However, those are good meals compared with instant noodles, which are often loaded with salt, preservatives and meat from animals that were likely butchered months before.
The department is doing its best to fight this trend, but in the absence of real food health education, the situation is unlikely to improve.
Nutrition labels on fast food will do no good if the people consuming it do not know what trans fats are and the damage they do to health. Taiwanese should know how the McDonalds-ization of their diets affects both their health and their wallets. It’s much cheaper to cook food at home, but because of the convenience of eating from street stalls and small restaurants, few young people stick to a traditional healthy Taiwanese diet.
The weight problem in Taiwan has not reached crisis proportions yet, but it soon will if the government fails to take stronger steps to discourage unhealthy eating habits and encourage people to return to their rural dietary roots.