Letter from Limburg #3: Where are all the fat kids?


Dear Blighty,

So, January is now upon us and ’tis the season of New Year’s Resolutions.  Have you made any this year?

As a regular gym goer, its an annoying month, as clubs around the world get clogged up with new members who have the best of intentions to shift their holiday season weight or were gifted gym memberships by concerned family members, hoping they might finally pursue a fitter, healthier life.  Alas, by the time it gets to Spring (often even before then), the vast majority of these have given in to the temptation of the couch over the cardio equipment and normality gradually returns to the gym.  Until next January.

Here in Limburg, the fitness industry is booming!  Gyms are sprouting up links, rechts en midde!  The Dutch generally are a healthy bunch.  In fact, by 2030, while every other country in the EU will have become fatter, the Netherlands is the only country which will be slimmer, being on course to have a lower percentage of overweight people than they do now.

In comparison, Blighty, you and the Republic of Ireland have the fattest population in Europe.  And you’re getting fatter!

I have now spent a month here in Limburg and I have been to the Netherlands well over 10 times now.  As I look around, I occasionally see people I would describe as ‘obese’.  Having previously resided in Scotland and then England, I can state, without exaggeration, that I would see a large amount of obese people every time I left my house.

A more challenging game here in Limburg and across the Netherlands is to play ‘Spot the fat child’.  I can genuinely say that, so far, I cannot recall ever seeing one.  I have spotted several who I might describe as carrying a little ‘puppy fat’, but I cannot remember encountering one single fat child since being here now or any of my previous visits.  Where are all the fat kids?

I find it hard to believe they are all hidden away in homes or secured behind barbed wire in ‘fat camps’.  A more logical conclusion, and backed up by the stats, is that, by and large (mind the pun!), they just don’t exist here.  At least, not in the same proportion they do on you, Blighty.

This is not to say that there aren’t problems with overweight children and obesity amongst the young here in the Netherlands.  It does exist, and it is currently growing.  If it exists at all anywhere, then, of course, it is a problem that needs to be tackled.  But the fact still remains that there are, proportionately, far fewer overweight and obese Dutch children than there are British ones.

The question therefore is:  why?

Why does Britain have so many more fat kids than the Netherlands?  What is so different about their country, mentality, lifestyle and culture that means Dutch people, by and large, are far healthier than their British counterparts, including their kids?

In the age of the internet, video games, fast food and on-demand movies, why aren’t Dutch children getting trapped into the unhealthy habits and its effects to the same degree as British kids?

I don’t pretend to know the answers, but I do have a few suggestions that I have garnered from my own research and from speaking with people here in Limburg:

  • More Dutch children cycle to school than in any other European country.  On average they spend 40 minutes per week cycling.  In a flat land of cycle paths this is, of course, a whole lot of an easier thing to do than in parts of the UK.
  • Far more Dutch children walk to school than British kids and very few are dropped off in cars by their parents.
  • It is not usual for Dutch school children to be served cooked food at school.  Most Dutch kids are given packed lunches prepared by their parents.  This is, of course, leaving it to the whim of the parents but, based on the fact that Dutch adults are a generally far healthier breed than us Brits, it stands to reason that this logic is replicated in the lunch  boxes of their off-spring.
  •  Dutch people generally have a greater concern with the aesthetics of ‘things’ with a long tradition for cutting-edge art, design, architecture and fashion.  This often translates over into their own physiques too, with higher percentages of Dutch people engaged in physical activity well into their older years.  It is quite common to see someone in their seventies riding a bicycle and sometimes even speed-walking or running.  This attitude is therefore likely to be present in their parenting and passed-on to their children.
  • One lady commented to me that ‘being fat’ is treated with less of a stigma in the Netherlands than it is in some other countries.  She therefore surmised that people who are overweight do not suffer the same treatment and are unlikely to turn to coping and comforting measures (such as comfort eating) to maintain and increase their weight.
  • It is certainly not true to say that the Dutch have a particularly healthy diet.  Dutch cuisine is renowned for its fatty delicacies, such as oliebollen and frikadellen.  But the Dutch seemed to have mastered something that the British (and Americans particularly) find hard to manage:  moderation and portion size.  You won’t find any restaurants here serving the monstrous portion sizes you find in many places in the USA and, increasingly, in the UK.  Dutch towns still all have McDonalds, KFC and Burger King  (and a whole lot more), but most Dutch people visit sparingly and responsibly.

It may also be fair to point out that Dutch people are amongst the tallest in the world and so carry often their weight better than their shorter European counterparts.

So, Blighty, there’s some food for thought.  But don’t eat it!  Just think about it.

What can you learn from the Netherlands that might just help save some of your citizens from an early heart attack or being diagnosed with Diabetes?

And if you don’t believe me that things in the Netherlands can really be so much better, come and play ‘spot the fat kid’ game over here.  I’ll go to the UK and play it there.  Even if I sit on a bench, I’ll bet I win the game, while you’ll still be searching high and low to match my numbers.  But at least you’ll be burning some fat in the process!

Best of luck with your New Year’s Resolution and to a new and healthier you!

Benedict x



Crying over heated milk in McDonald’s


I’m sat in McDonald’s (having a porridge, relax! OK, well maybe a bacon & egg muffin too, alright, get off my case!) and I’m a struck by a situation that, although I am more than familiar with, had never encountered first-hand before, and it touched me in rather a profound way.

I love single parents (no more than non-single parents, but I love them nonetheless and know the difficulty of their lives to some degree). I know, very often, it is not of their own doing, or of their own choice, or, if it is, it is a choice not easily reached. Single parents do amazing work and are an incredible inspiration to me and many others too.

As I complain in my head about the incompetence of McDonald’s staff to, yet again, provide me with what I actually asked, despite saying “with maple syrup” twice (I don’t think I have a particularly strong regional accent or a major speech impediment, although a gentle lisp occasionally creeps in), I am approached by a very cute toddler who looks at me in a bewildered and yet curious manner. I smile at him in a “he’s making me smile but I don’t want to come across as a paedo” kind of way. His mother, probably thinking the latter, beckoned him to come nearer to her, but still he persisted in his fascination of me and my laptop.

The mother was accompanied by an elderly gentleman, her father I would presume. She sat at a table, he lingering a metre to her side, not ordering any food, just waiting.

A few moments later, in sauntered a handsome young Asian chap who whisked the toddler into his arms, smiled at the woman, then turned the other way and walked out the door, while the mother and elderly gentleman walked in the opposite direction. No words were uttered. It was understood that this was the situation.

Then it struck me how this is the situation for thousands of young people of all ages up and down the land. I am not knocking it. For many people, this is the most practical situation for loving parents whose relationships have failed or broken down. We are only human. I do not blame anyone or criticise the jobs they are doing. This is not a critique, only an observation of something that I had never actually encountered at any point in my shallow, sheltered life. That of a child being exchanged from the protection of one parent to another. He understood, I imagine, in his limited capacity as a toddler to understand what was happening. He seemed happy enough. But the manner in which it all happened; so speedily, so unceremoniously, as if it was the dumping of a property from one set of hands to another; a deal; an exchange of money in a briefcase – it all seemed so clinical, so inhuman, so… so sad.

And then I began to shed a tear for this child. For this father. For this mother. For this grandfather. They seemed at ease with the situation. But it affected me to the point of tears. And still I am crying now as I write this to you. Why should I care? Why should I give a damn? These are good people who, I have no doubt, love and care for their child. They just know they can’t do it together. Yet still I cry.

I guess my eyes have finally been opened to a life I do not know and I have a new level of appreciation and empathy for all those caught up in the complications of life, love and the challenges it continues to throw at us along the way.