Coke,ritain is fat. We know that. Chefs B and doctors, footballers and even pop stars tell us over and over again, in campaigns against the obesity epidemic. But now, as The Independent on Sunday reveals, new data show that an alarming number of Britons actually suffer from malnutrition.
Doctors estimate that more than three million people are malnourished. Most do not re-alise it, although diagnosis rates in hospitals have soared by 44 per cent over the past five years. The most extreme cases echo symptoms found among famine victims in the developing world. Wasted limbs and pot bellies are being seen in British hospitals, where 40 per cent of patients are thought to be malnourished. Marasmus, the protein deficiency most often seen in Africa, has been found among anorexic women here.
But the majority of cases are people who lack the vitamins and nutrients vital for the body to function properly. Malnourishment has recently been recognised as a major problem for the sick, elderly and frail, but new statistics gathered for the Department of Health show it affects pregnant women and newborn babies, schoolchildren and adults who believe themselves to be healthy.
One woman who vomited frequently during pregnancy developed a vitamin deficiency that went undiagnosed. She suffered brain damage. The calcium shortage found in 8 per cent of young people can lead to crumbling or brittle bones.
"If you are young and well, you can still end up malnourished," said Dr Alistair McKinlay, consultant gastro-enterolo-gist at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary and one of the country's leading authorities on the condition. "In 75 per cent of people, the problem is not identified."
Malnutrition costs the NHS [pound]7.3bn a year according to the British Association for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition, the experts in the field. That figure is more than double the estimated cost of obesity.
Alcohol and drugs can disturb the balance of our bodies - but the main cause, doctors believe, is a poor diet. So how can this be? When there is so much food about, from low-fat diet meals to high- fat takeaways, how can so many people be short of the nutrients essential for a healthy life? What has gone wrong between the British and our food?
Gordon Ramsay, one of the best chefs in the world, blames habits learned in the home. "If we are going to be a healthy nation then you've got to discipline the parents," he told the IoS in a rare interview. "The only way to implement severe standards now is if their kids become obesely overweight and out of control. Then I would seriously fine [the parents] and threaten them with a court appearance, because they often don't realise what they're doing." Children need to be given a strong lead, he said. "Children eat with their eyes. They're lazy. If you don't tell them about what they're eating, trust me, they will eat as much crap as they can when they get home. They get connected to junk food in a way that becomes obsessive."
The Michelin-star winning father of four gave his children tripe the other week, in a stew with red peppers, tomato and garlic. He didn't tell them what it was. "It was absolutely delicious. They said, 'What was that?' I showed them a picture of a cow, and took out the stomach bag, and their faces dropped. But they asked for it again."
Ramsay was full of praise for the efforts of Jamie Oliver to improve school dinners. "He helped to make every parent feel guilty, for the first time, about what their children were eating at school. He woke everyone up."
Oliver said: "I think many parents are unaware of how much junk their kids are eating and drinking." He added: "As well as the frightening rise in obesity there's a growing number of kids, of whatever shape and size, that simply aren't getting fed enough nutrients like iron, calcium and vitamins. It's having a huge effect on their brainpower, behaviour and ability to concentrate and learn at school. …