Taking Obesity off the Menu in the Czech Republic
In the country famous for producing supermodel bombshell Karolina Kurkova, a former Victoria’s Secret Angel, there is another less attractive trend taking hold. The Czech Republic, the world’s biggest consumer of beer per capita, is dealing with a beer belly crisis of epic proportions as the country struggles against its chart-topping obesity rates.
In 2013, the Czech Republic was the fattest country in Europe, outranking all 53 European countries included in the World Health Organization’s obesity report. With demanding work schedules and Western fast food chains infiltrating a country already known for its traditionally high-calorie dishes, Czechs are still coping with a drastic change in lifestyle more than 25 years after the fall of communism.
“The lifestyle in the Czech Republic is comparable to the rest of the Western world in modern times,” says Alexandra Fraisova, who represents the Czech Republic in the international patient council of EASO, the European Association for the Study of Obesity.
“The Czechs are eating fast food, they eat processed food – they are not as active as they used to be. Modern times are not friendly to your lifestyle,” Fraisova said over email.
The collapse of communism in 1989 filled supermarkets with more fruits, vegetables and food varieties than ever before. But just three years later, the glowing golden arches and tantalizing Big Macs of the West landed in Prague and Czechs have been “lovin’ it” ever since. McDonald’s now has 95 restaurants across the country, a few more than KFC, with plans to expand.
Fraisova understands firsthand how lifestyle changes can wreak havoc on the body. Trading dancing for bartending in college, Fraisova stopped exercising due to her busy schedule and underwent long treatments for glycemic-related health issues. “Suddenly, I was about 55 pounds up, overweight and on my way to obesity.”
That’s when Fraisova found out about the Stop Obesity Organization, STOB, and became involved with STOBklub, a patients’ platform that provides online tools for weight management like healthy recipes and coaching services. Now she’s a lecturer, personal trainer and manager of STOBklub, which has racked up more than a quarter million members since 2010, she says.
With European obesity day just a month away, the region is in a race against time. According to the most recent 2015 WHO report, Europe is on track to face a devastating obesity crisis. About two thirds of all adults living in the Czech Republic will be overweight or obese by 2030, up from a quarter of the population in 2010. Projections describe similar patterns and increases across Europe.
When a body mass index, BMI, a measure dependent on a person’s height and weight, is more than 25, that person is considered overweight. A BMI of more than 30 is obese.
“For many people, the hardest part about losing weight is the stress and lack of sleep, which causes the craving of carbs, especially sweet and refined carbs,” says doctor Vaclava Kunova, an obesity expert and member of the Czech Society for Nutrition.
Kunova adds that irregular eating times, no exercise and “a chaos of information” in the media are some of the biggest hurdles that overweight Czechs have to overcome. And drinking beer doesn’t help, she said over email.
“It’s a different lifestyle than in the United States -- after work, the men like to go to the pub and then they get hungry. And they don’t want vegetables, they want meat,” explains Denisa Halova, a nutritionist who advises her clients what to eat and not eat based on their blood levels. “Give a man a salad and he will want to eat again 10 minutes later.”
According to the WHO, the average Czech only eats about two thirds of the recommended amount of vegetables and fruit per day. The country sits 4th to last for lowest produce consumption in Europe, far behind neighboring Austria and nearby Hungary.
Reaching for fatty pork sausages, beef smothered in thick cream sauces and dense bread and potato dumplings instead, Czechs are becoming more likely to choose convenience over their waistlines. Last year, the Czech car market celebrated a record breaking year in sales.
In the lobby of the Motol University Hospital in Prague 5, two cafes and a mini market surround a dining area full of customers sipping Pepsi and munching on sandwiches. “The main problem, I think, is everyone is working 8-12 hours a day and taking two hours to get home. They’re too tired to make a big dinner with salads and vegetables, so they open the fridge and grab some hot dogs,” adds Halova, just as a nurse struts by, tearing off the wrapper to a Fudgsicle.
Under communism, most people worked typical hours from 7 or 8 a.m. until 4 or 5 p.m., leaving plenty of time to purchase fresh groceries and cook dinner.
Today, signs of Western consumerism seem to swallow Prague, from its Burger King street signs to KFC’s newly launched delivery service. The need for a substantial, more cohesive education in health and nutrition is stronger than ever.
“We need a simpler and clearer education, probably via the internet and at schools,” argues Kunova, the obesity expert. “There is still a lack of nutritional education on one side and a lot of myth about nutrition, healthy eating and trend diets on the other side,” which creates a confusing information overload.
“We never talked about what to eat and what’s healthy,” confirms Pavla Ksiazkiewiczova, a 25-year-old Charles University graduate student studying international relations. Ksiazkiewiczova grew up on a farm in southeast Moravia where the vegetables and fruits are plentiful and cheaper than what she can find in Prague, where the majority of produce is imported from abroad.
Despite her agricultural upbringing, Ksiazkiewiczova admits to “not eating very healthy” and frequenting Burrito Loco, a 24-hour Mexican fast-food joint, after nights of partying.
“My brother doesn’t eat fruits or vegetables at all. If he eats vegetables, he’ll actually throw up. He sits by his computer all day,” Ksiazkiewiczovasaid about her 14-year-old brother, one of her only overweight family members.
On the other hand, Karel Stratka, also a 25-year-old graduate student from Charles University studying psychology and law, recalls that his grandparents, father and many other close relatives are all overweight.
But young people, like Ksiazkiewiczova and Stratka, are beginning to battle the odds.
Stratka recently started reading articles online to see what foods have the most protein, fat and carbohydrates. He’s learning to enjoy food more and think about what he puts into his body.
“I think the healthy lifestyle is getting more and more in. More and more of my friends are working out,” says Ksiazkiewiczova, adding that she, however, is not one of them. “I’m working on my thesis, so I don’t have time to go to the gym. Or I’m too lazy to find time,” she shrugs.
Both Stratka and Ksiazkiewiczovaagree that they live in a young people bubble. In Prague, they’re surrounded by friends who enjoy eating out and show an interest in their health, but the countryside is different.
“Many people with high income and high education are aware of their eating habits and sport,” Kunova said. “People with the lowest income and education have the worst eating behavior. They prefer cheap junk food -- it is the same all over the world.”
Kunova adds that a lack of data and surveillance makes it more difficult to track weight trends, but according to studies done in the United States, the burden of obesity is more prevalent in rural areas.
The Czech Republic still trails behind the United States and Mexico on global obesity reports, but not by much. Given that Czech-Westernization began little more than 25 years ago, the 10-15% gap in prevalence is both understandable and impressive.
To combat fat, organizations like STOB and EASO develop special programs around European obesity day, which falls on May 20 this year, to raise awareness and urge healthy decision making. Fraisova says the main task of programs like STOBklub is to take obesity off the menu together.
“We are victims of a modern lazy and convenient lifestyle. Our aim is to teach people to come back to basics, to show them that living healthy is not expensive, time consuming or too demanding -- that is the main task.”
A version of this article was initially intended for an international reporting class at New York University, Prague.