Tuesday 26 May 2020

Hands off our chocolate!

This column first appeared in Malta Today

It seems that the threat to make chocolate unavailable continues to act like a trigger in so many ways for this country.  Those who lived through the 80s will know why.

Mintoff’s draconian import laws which banned everything from chocolate to toothpaste and pasta in order to protect local manufacturers, is still too touchy an issue for a lot of people.  It is synonymous with a time when the favourite Government word seemed to be ‘no’: no to colour TV, no to Pepsodent, no to Barilla and, the cruelest blow of them all, no to Mars bars and Cadbury.    Those who travelled were invariably issued with instructions by their relatives to bring back the forbidden loot, and everyone’s favourite souvenir from overseas was definitely lovely, delicious, heavenly chocolate.  It might sound trivial now, but then many reading this may not have had the misfortune to taste Desserta chocolate, the inferior, locally-produced equivalent.  Trust me, it was bad.

I think there is a direct correlation between why people gorge so much on food, any food, and the austerity of the 80s when our shelves were woefully bereft of choice and anything really yummy and scrumptious.  The availability of rows and rows of tinned Flying Wheel chopped ham and pork imported from China through the bulk buying scheme just didn’t quite cut it.   

So when I read the article about nurses being up in arms over Mater Dei banning anything fattening from its canteen and any outlets on the premises, the Lovin’ Malta headline “Give us back our chocolate and soft drinks” brought back a vivid flashback to those times. The decision by the management, which came into effect on 1 June, was first touted in May of last year.  At the time, it was reported by the Times of Malta that “There will be no more “non nutritional” and sugary drinks on offer at Mater Dei as the hospital administration embarks on a health drive. All food items will be restricted for patients, workers or visitors, an internal memo leaked to the media has shown.  Suppliers and operators have been given a deadline until June 1, 2019 to eliminate the products. The government will be issuing new tenders for the shops, eateries and vending machines inside Mater Dei.”

As a side note, I have to point to the irony that all this happened on the eve of Sette Giugno which commemorates a real rebellion, also partially related to food, in which blood was shed. In 1919, four Maltese men were shot and killed by British soldiers during the uprising in Valletta to protest against the Government and the acute food shortages.  Never mind chocolate and soft drinks, that was a time when the country was lacking in basic food stuffs and people were literally starving.

But back to the current issue. The thing is that when you ban something, the inevitable reaction is that it puts people’s back up and makes them want it more  When it is something with so many psychological connotations for Malta as food, especially chocolate, you can have a full-blown rebellion on your hands.  And that is exactly what happened.  The deadline arrived and the expected uproar ensued.  

“The Malta Union of Midwives and Nurses has threatened to issue directives to all its members unless sweets, sweet beverages and carbohydrates are reintroduced for staff in Mater Dei hospital,” the Times of Malta reported on Thursday. 

While many saw this as an over the top reaction, pointing out that the staff can bring these type of foods from home if they wish, I can also understand the need to have comfort food readily available while working long hours under stress.  If you are under pressure, there is something inexplicable which starts brewing in your psyche which turns into a craving for something, anything, to calm you down: some turn to caffeine, others need a cigarette, others need sugar or carbs.  Should food or nicotine be used in this way? Obviously not, but our psychological state cannot be reasoned with in a rational way at moments of real stress and fatigue.  So while, intellectually, we all know that a drive towards more nutritious eating is a good thing because much of the nation is obese, I think this was not the right way to go about it.   

All of those who struggle with weight know that it takes a quantum leap in the way we relate to food to change our eating habits.  Sometimes banning something outright from your pantry does help, but in some cases, this might also be too drastic and you can end up with such an overwhelming craving for sugar and carbs that you find yourself binging on them uncontrollably almost as we say in Maltese, “b’vindikazzjoni”…out of revenge, to compensate for the time you spent depriving yourself of the goodies.  That’s not going to do anyone any good is it?

It is precisely because of this cycle of deprivation > craving > binging that so many crash diets don’t work and are doomed to fail.  They are simply not sustainable in the long-term.  What I think the hospital should have done is that instead of completely banning unhealthy food, it should have ensured that Mater Dei also provides a wide range of healthy options (and this has to be stressed) at a reasonable price. No one is gong to spend 10 Euro on a salad when they can spend a few Euro to fill up on pastizzi or stodgy, hearty pasta instead.   The MUMN also raised a valid point by saying that the hospital should provide a free gym on the premises if it wanted to combat obesity.  It also has to be pointed out that these are adults we are talking about and you cannot treat them like children whose own school lunches are now very limited, due to a long list of food which has been banned.  (Incidentally, have all these school restrictions actually worked to cut down on child obesity?) 

Meanwhile, Mater Dei CEO Ivan Falzon was interviewed by Lovin’ Malta. He confirmed that the hospital management will request a meeting with the union over the issue but insisted the discussion will not be about reversing the directive but about potentially tweaking the menu.

“I don’t think we went too extreme and we left the staff with a number of options such as baguettes and sandwiches,” he said. “It’s also not true that we’re denying staff the right to eat what they want, we’re only stating what food will be provided by the hospital itself.”

Ultimately, I doubt that bad eating habits and a junk food culture can be eradicated through imposition but through awareness of what a bad diet does to your body over time. One would think that hospital staff who are surrounded by disease and illness every day already know this, but perhaps the very nature of the job has made them immune.   Cutting back on what is unhealthy should obviously be promoted and all hospital staff should be actively encouraged to have regular physical check ups (if this is not done already).  I would even suggest that nutritionists and counsellors who can explain the connection between over-eating and emotional issues be made available to staff.  

The turning point when it comes to changing one’s diet is not the same for everyone – sometimes it’s a very unflattering photo, sometimes it’s the alarming news that one’s cholesterol and blood pressure are sky high and sometimes it is learning that a close relative has been stricken by disease because of their unhealthy lifestyle.  I very much doubt, however, that a blanket ban will do the trick.  We should be aiming for moderation, and learning how to choose a healthy dish from the menu rather than a less healthy one. Maybe we will not choose the healthy option every day, but even choosing it once in a while, while cutting back on the junk food, is already a step in the right direction and more do-able over a long period of time, rather than trying to apply abrupt, quick fixes. 

Above all, I would leave the chocolate where it is. Life’s too short not to enjoy a piece of chocolate now and then. 

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