IT IS many years since the Stelfox family had what is known as a beach holiday.
We’re not the sunbathing sort. Our holidays are generally spent trudging up mountains in variable weather and abseiling down canyons in wet suits.
This summer was, therefore, a rarity. Two whole weeks in blistering sunshine with coastal waters and sandy beaches aplenty.
It was also something of a shock.
Perhaps because our vacations have been spent in active pursuits with other active people we hadn’t fully comprehended what a massive problem obesity is becoming among the British population.
It’s not that we hadn’t read the Government’s dire predictions on the rising numbers of people afflicted by weight-related health problems, it’s just that we didn’t quite believe things were as bad as they said.
And then we walked the one-mile strip of seafront along the South West coast of Cyprus, from our hotel to Kato Paphos, and finally believed.
This stretch of the island is home to some of the most expensive and grandest hotels in Greek Cyprus.
Every hotel has its own garden and beachfront. It is a popular resort with British tourists.
We estimated that 80% of the middle-aged and elderly bodies (outside school holidays there were few children and young people) laid out on the padded sunbeds were either obese or morbidly obese.
In our hotel at the end of this coastal strip there were so many people clearly struggling to move because of their vast size that it was difficult to understand how they’d even managed to board an aeroplane to get there. And, believe me, this is no exaggeration.
I suppose in the normal scheme of things you don’t get to see the real extent of other people’s weight problems because they’re usually fully dressed – and, in some cases, cleverly dressed to conceal their girth – but on a beach there’s nowhere to hide.
It was clear that many already had health problems because they puffed and panted as they walked. Some had sticks to help them along.
There was even a wide selection of diabetic jams at the all-you-could-eat breakfast table in our hotel.
Over the years I have interviewed countless numbers of slimmers who have shed vast amounts of weight to regain a normal body mass index. I know how difficult it was for them to overcome what is in fact an addiction, in some cases an addiction rooted in childhood.
I also know that few obese people are happy with their size.
Diet guru Rosemary Conley once said to me that if someone invented an instant weight-loss pill every fat person in the world would want to take it. Such is the depth of misery caused by obesity.
But pills are not the answer. In fact, the solution to this growing problem will be extremely hard to find given that we live in a society where calorie-dense foods are cheap and plentiful and food manufacturers keep coming up with ever-more creative ways to sell us their products.
But we could start with better lifestyle education and acceptance of the fact that there are complex psychological forces at work behind Western obesity.
Parents need to understand that if they feed children on convenience foods, chocolate, pop and crisps, it will prime their young bodies for a lifetime of weight problems (scientists say that such foods can actually alter body chemistry and mean that someone will thereafter always struggle to maintain a healthy weight ). And then adults should be helped, not endlessly criticised, to deal with their obesity.
Earlier this year I interviewed a young woman who had undergone bariatric surgery (gastric by-pass) and lost 10 stones.
It was a drastic solution but, according to her surgeon, the only one for people who have developed a psychological and physiological dependence on over-eating. He also said that many of his patients were simply unable to help themselves and more such surgery is needed.
His patient agreed and likened her desire to comfort eat to a junkie’s need for a fix.
Instead of messing about with what is likely to become an increasingly-privatised health service, the Government should be doing everything it can to help its people overcome this weighty problem.
Failure to do so will cost the country billions, thereby negating anything saved through austerity measures. And the cost in human unhappiness will be even greater.