Magazine article Newsweek

The Fat of the Land

Magazine article Newsweek

The Fat of the Land

Article excerpt

ADD THIS TO THE LIST OF COMMUNISTS' unsavory legacy in the Czech Republic: the fatty sausage and the greasy potato dumpling. The communists didn't invent the unhealthy diet, but they promoted it by subsidizing cheap sausage and dairy products. The result: 45 percent of Czech women are obese, and the country has one of the world's highest death rates from heart disease. But with the Velvet Revolution complete, Czech doctors are trying to foment a Roughage Revolution.

It's a weighty task. The diet drive is headquartered in Dubec, on the outskirts of Prague. Rudolf Poledne, a biochemist, has bombarded the village's 1,800 residents with health propaganda. His team held a salad-making contest. (The primary-school principal won.) A local hospital has treated 400 high-risk patients with cholesterol-reducing drugs. The Central European Center for Health and Environment, the Berlin-based organization that launched the Dubec program, hopes to use the model across the entire former Eastern bloc.

In the Czech Republic, economic reforms have already reshaped the country's diet. When the government stopped subsidizing meat and dairy products in 1991, prices for high-cholesterol butter and sour cream jumped three times, and the cost of salami more than doubled. Thanks to the private market, carts of bananas, apples and oranges began to appear on every corner. Cholesterol levels dropped by some 5 percent; the mortality rate from heart disease dropped for men by 13 percent and for women by 9 percent. Fitness and weight loss became a kind of fad among women and children. "Before, it was just considered normal that if you had had two children," says Poledne, "you should be fat."

The collapse of communism also allowed doctors to break another taboo. Communist bureaucrats had discouraged scientists from exploring new ideas about health that trickled in from the West--in part because concerns about cholesterol threatened the entire agricultural system, which emphasized meat and dairy production, and highlighted the communists' inability to deliver fresh vegetables to the shops. …

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