Are Czechs getting larger round the waist?

The beloved Czech beer, another high-caloric treat

And now it's time for this week's Talking Point, and today Nick Carey takes a look at a growing problem in the Czech Republic, obesity.

The problem of obesity in the Czech Republic is one that has not been much discussed in the media until recently. Thanks to a national diet that is heavily laden with beer and with meat and dumplings, there have always been Czechs who are overweight, and in serious beer drinking circles a beer gut has always been won with pride. But the problem, say doctors, is getting worse. According to recent reports in the Czech press, 70 percent of Czechs over the age of 18 are overweight. A third of these overweight people suffer from obesity. The rate of obesity in the Czech Republic has grown dramatically over the past thirty years, and much of that increase, the reports claim, has occurred since the fall of communism in 1989. But are the Czechs getting fatter as time goes on?

Dr Frantisek Kolbel represents the Czech Republic on the European Committee of the World Health Organisation:

The problem of obesity in children, which has more than doubled since 1970, is an uncomfortable issue that many parents in the Czech Republic are having to come to terms with. Dr Ludmila Neugerbauerova works with children with weight problems, and she feels that the Czech Republic's problem with obesity is approaching that of many Western countries:

"This is all part and parcel of trends that we can see in the West, in particular in the United States. Much of the responsibility for this lies with parents. They need to be able to provide an alternative lifestyle for their children and show them the importance of good nutrition."

One thing that all doctors are agreed on is the poor quality of the average Czech diet, but opinions differ over what is worst, the junk food and sugary drinks that many Czechs consume on a daily basis, or the traditional Czech diet. Dr Kolbel feels that the problem is worsening because while their living standards have increased, the Czechs have not improved their dietary habits: Another bone of contention is whether the Czechs themselves are aware of the importance of a proper diet. According to oncologist Dr Lubos Petruzelka, the average Czech diet is far from healthy, and education programmes are needed to make the Czechs aware that a poor diet can have far reaching effects and can even increase the risk of cancer: Doctor Neugerbauerova, on the other hand, feels that the level of awareness is more than adequate, it's how seriously this information is taken that is the problem:

The beloved Czech beer, another high-caloric treat
"I would say that the Czechs are, in general, very well informed. There are frequent articles in papers and magazines, charts with how many calories there are in different foods, and how to plan a balanced diet. But I don't think enough emphasis has been placed on the importance of this issue, how vital a balance is, and how to pass this on to their children."

And again, there is yet another school of thought on this matter. Doctor Kolbel agrees that the Czechs are generally aware of what constitutes a good diet, but there are some who simply don't care: Apart from the beer and goulash, the increased living standards and increased consumption of junk food, many Czechs are also apparently getting much less exercise. Before 1989, very few people had access to a car, and now, says Dr Hana Honova, few people bother to walk anywhere:

"More and more people nowadays don't go anywhere on foot. They prefer to travel by car, and this has had a tremendous impact on their health. Many of them don't seem to realise that people need constant exercise, that it is simply not enough to go to the gym once a week."

Another part of the puzzle is television. Prior to the fall of communism, a look at a television schedule in any Czech paper would have given many a devoted Western couch potato palpitations, with just a few hours a of viewing time per day. Now, with multiple channels to choose from, plus the advent of cable, satellite and video in the Czech Republic, and the added evil of junk food, people spend far too long in front of their television sets: