The Connection Between Covid-19 and Secret Eating

Let me tell you a secret. I’m a secret ‘Secret Eaters‘ fan.

I must have watched a week’s worth of this British ‘reality TV’ gem, that packs more of a health education punch than you probably think from the name. If you haven’t seen it, there are umpteen episodes on YouTube from half a dozen seasons, all of which revolve around a very tight formula: Two obese people want to know why they are obese, and a chirpy, weight-obsessed hostess sets about figuring out the mystery for them.

It’s the same rigmarole every week, with only slight elements changing in the rigid donut of a storyline. Husband/wife | girlfriend/boyfriend | brother/sister | sister/sister | mother/daughter are filmed whining about their weight, mourning their metabolism, and claiming to eat the calories of a canary. The empathetic hostess mugs into the camera as she reiterates their dilemma: “So you only eat kale and coconut husk, walk five miles to the gym and back nine times a week, and you’ve gained four stone in a year. How can this possibly be?”

The willing victims agree to have hidden cameras installed at home for five days, so that agreeable Anna Richardson can find out just how indeed it can possibly be. What the poor schlubs don’t realise is that she also unleashes a pair of perceptive private eyes to invade their privacy 24/7 by following them around incognito, watching for any sign of mystery mastication or baffling bingeing. Then the big reveal is sprung, leading to one of the most humiliatingly cathartic concepts I’ve ever seen in reality realms, that genuinely shocks both subject and viewer into the realisation that we all eat and drink wayyyyyy too much.

Every. Single. Time.

Every episode runs along the same lines. The same people who “get fat just looking at a Mars Bar” turn out to be stuffing themselves day and night with frightening mountains of fish and chips, doner kebab and chips, pizza and chips, fry-up and chips, big cream buns, multi-sacks of crisps and bricks of chocolate. Then they wash it all down with diet drinks – of course – by the flagon. Some of this videoed gorging might involve them sneaking off on purpose to avoid the Secret Eaters CCTV at home, but mainly these famous-for-forty-minutes stars simply had no idea they were eating so much so much of the time. As if food at home was the only kind worth putting in the diet-diary, and ‘outside food’ – or meals you didn’t prepare yourself – didn’t count.

And the booze! In some episodes, the good time guy drinks his month’s recommended alcohol units in five days of surveillance, but doesn’t realise there are any calories in his pints and shots. One woman could have floored a rugby club with her Prosecco consumption, but was visibly astonished to find out that every bottle she waved around her head before guzzling was adding 500 empty – if enjoyable – calories to her day.

That’s 20% of a healthy woman’s daily recommended eating allowance and it has been for years.

The recurring lesson is that in Britain – where alcohol is deemed an essential supply these days – a big slice of the population thinks that drinking a bottle of vodka is like slugging down a pint of water. Or has no idea that five cans a night amounts to “a whopping” 150 cans and 2000-plus calories a month around their belly.

It’s just social drinking. No calories. No impact. No fucking clue!

I’m not going to fat shame anyone in this world, because I’ve been there, carried around the pounds, and passed my own food mistakes on to my kids. I still know the basic “calorie-controlled diet” rules my mother taught me at age eleven, but I’ve learned they only work if you apply them for life. I still don’t have a handle on my relationship with food otherwise I’d be able to eek a solitary pack of dark chocolate digestives out for five days instead of snarfing them down in two gos. But I’m working on that for all the reasons being thrown around in this treatise, precisely because I’ve already lived an obese existence, and I don’t think going back there in my fifties is a good life choice. If only I could apply it on both my weekly lockdown-shopping excursions.

I’m not shaming the Secret Eaters programme either, because it became a favourite compulsion to watch it when I myself was actively preparing not to eat every shred of yumminess laid before me on extended-vacation in Belfast last summer – to gird my sweet-tooth, as it were, against the home-bakery hordes. More recently I’ve been brainwashing myself through lockdown, resulting in a decrease in chocolate consumption replaced by mango and papaya over-consumption. In fact, that’s why I started watching again.

Now I’m putting on unwanted weight after eight years, so this blog isn’t about shaming. It’s about knowledge being power.

It is also about the incredulity that forty years after my own secondary education, people in Britain know so very little about the food they eat and the effects it has on their health. Each one of the participants in Secret Eaters is already suffering from an obesity-related ailment like knee pain, diabetes or high blood pressure. But they know little about nutritional needs and fresh food – choosing it, cooking it, understanding how important that is in living a healthy life.

It’s not a ‘lifestyle’, because not having that knowledge can lead to death, and death is never in style.

Wrapped up in a reality format, Secret Eaters and its graphic predecessor ‘Supersize / Superskinny‘ are actually very poignant pieces of public health programming for our time, because these stories of average people make clear that the easy availability of fast food, pre-packaged, processed, refined and ridiculous, has become the source of a different pandemic than the one that preoccupies us right now. And for whatever reason, three generations of Brits know nothing about the basics of ‘Food & Nutrition’ that were taught to me as a module of Home Economics ‘O’ Level in 1980. Now many kids have no idea of the names of common vegetables like courgette and aubergine. Many young adults haven’t the cooking skills or motivation to boil an egg.

A favourite boss of mine used to talk about “joined-up” thinking, and I’ve tried to apply it as a regular habit ever since.

Joined-up thinking usually leads to the next stage of conclusions for any problem. We are what we eat. We eat a lot of garbage that contributes to other, more deadly conditions in the human body, which never evolved to cope with sitting in a recliner consuming humongous amounts of saturated fats and refined sugars on an hourly basis. We are pandemically lazy, with exercise scratching a low priority for the many.

The human body was never meant to weigh half a ton, and the impact of obesity is already a devastating public health disaster.

Joined-up thinking …

Obesity, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease. They are already the world’s biggest killers.

And they are non-communicable. Some science points to the role of DNA, but most scientists underwrite lifelong nutrition and exercise habits as having a significant impact on the probability of not developing a laundry list of NCDs. Now there’s evidence that such globally prevalent pre-existing conditions can cause increased vulnerability to Covid-19 coronavirus, which makes sense, simply on the basis that the immune system is under attack via these very same diseases.

Neither should this be shocking news to us. The World Health Organisation reports on key statistics every year, although the accuracy of its data depends on that of the countries submitting reports. Currently, under ‘Obesity‘ as a topic, the latest thumbnail on this worldwide problem states: “Rates of overweight and obesity continue to grow in adults and children. From 1975 to 2016, the prevalence of overweight or obese children and adolescents aged 5–19 years increased more than four-fold from 4% to 18% globally.”

About Diabetes: “… 422 million people worldwide have diabetes, particularly in low-and middle-income countries, and 1.6 million deaths are directly attributed … each year. Both the number of cases and the prevalence … have been steadily increasing over the past few decades.” This of course, does not include the hideous toll diabetes can take on the living: Cataracts and blindness; limb loss and disability.

About high blood pressure, or Hypertension: “A serious medical condition [that] can increase the risk of heart, brain, kidney and other diseases. It is a major cause of premature death worldwide, with upwards of 1 in 4 men and 1 in 5 women – over a billion people ­– having the condition. The burden … is felt disproportionately in low- and middle-income countries, where two thirds of cases are found …”

That’s the global outlook. Percentages in the Caribbean are worse than average, as evidenced in January 2017, when a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) stated that Obesity was on the rise throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, particularly among women and children.

In the study, it was reported that close to 360 million people – around 58 percent of the inhabitants of the region – were overweight, with the highest rate observed in the Bahamas (69 percent). Pre-obese, they call it.

The report also noted Obesity affected 140 million people – 23 percent of the region’s population – and that the highest rates were found in the Caribbean countries of Barbados (36%) Trinidad and Tobago, Antigua and Barbuda (31% each).

Strikingly, the Obesity trend back in 2017 was disproportionately impacting women. In more than 20 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, the rate of female obesity was 10 percentage points higher than that of men.

Need I go on extrapolating? When I wrote about this report in a SHE Caribbean Magazine women’s health article around the time it was published, those numbers screamed danger for our big and beautiful community. No shame. No judgement. Just the facts. I’ve remembered that particular piece often, even if I can’t find my copy.

So what’s the joined-up thinking between Obesity and coronavirus? Well, it goes something like this:

  • Obesity causes health issues like heart disease and diabetes;
  • which cause the immune system not to work properly;
  • which reduces the body’s ability to fight off infection;
  • which leaves the body vulnerable to Covid-19 [and a plague of other transmittable diseases];
  • which means in Saint Lucia, the vulnerable community may be as high as 50% of the population.

Which means to protect our truly vulnerable people of all ages, genders and socio-economic levels, we really have to evaluate the moves we take to reopen our borders. Without politicising, proselytising, procrastinating or prevaricating, we must admit the scale and numbers of the already vulnerable community, here in Saint Lucia and across the Caribbean, then make a plan to avert a different level of public health catastrophe that is based on our collective pre-existing conditions.

Then we have to stop ‘Secret Eating’.