WHEN she gets home from her daycare job at 9 p.m., the last thing mom-of-two Elaine wants to do is cook a meal.
Your shift started at 6:30 and tomorrow will be the same.
Unsurprisingly, then, she doesn’t set about preparing a fancy, freshly made, healthy dinner—which she knows she should—but instead scrolls through the long list of fast food restaurants and takeaways on her phone contacts and one delivery ordered.
There’s a curry tonight – her third of the week – but it could have been pizza, a Chinese dish or a kebab.
Elaine’s dietary habits have helped push her weight to a dangerously high 37 pounds, and she sees no way to control it.
She says: “I know I’m way overweight, but what can I do? I love my job, but it doesn’t leave time to prepare and cook good food. I barely have enough time to shop for groceries.
“I’m exhausted when I come in at night, but also hungry and hungry, so I order takeout delivery most nights. Usually it’s a curry or a pizza or a kebab. Some days I’ll have all three.
“I know it’s not a healthy way to live. I am currently being monitored for diabetes by my GP as I am on the verge of developing it I have been told.”
Elaine is one of many in Ebbw Vale whose poor diet has helped push the area to the top of the UK obesity rankings.
Research by NHS prescription service Now Patient revealed last week that Blaenau Gwent is Wales’s number one hotspot for fat Brits, the borough where Ebbw Vale is the largest town.
Four out of five people in the county are now considered overweight or obese, defined as having a body mass index (BMI) of 25 or greater. The proportion of those with a BMI of 25 or more is now 79.9.
The unwelcome acquisition marks a sad milestone for the city that was once the industrial powerhouse of the British Empire and once employed 34,000 local men in its steelworks.
The city’s streets today bear the marks of its decline, and numerous fast food outlets and takeaways have sprung up in recent years.
A 2018 report found that Blaenau Gwent actually had the highest proportion of fast food outlets in the UK. It showed that a staggering 73 per cent of grocery stores in the area sold fast food – more than in any other part of the UK. Of the 75 restaurants in Blaenau Gwent at the time, 55 belonged to this category.
Elaine says there’s a “clear link” between the availability of cheap junk meals and obesity.
“It’s convenience,” she says. “There is so much choice in Ebbw Vale, but none of the options are good for you.
“I know a lot of people who don’t work and get takeout because it’s easy and cheap.
“We need to encourage people to move away from this type of food and instead develop the ability to prepare fresh food, which can actually be a lot cheaper.”
“The issue in my case is time, but for a lot of people it’s just a lack of know-how. If they taught kids how to cook in school, it might be a big step in the right direction.
“For me, I just have to finish work earlier. I have the skills and the will, but I just don’t have the time.”
Just five miles from Ebbw Vale and also in Blaenau Gwent County is Tredegar, the birthplace of the National Health Service and its founder Aneurin Bevan.
NHS medical workers we spoke to admitted the obesity epidemic in the region is putting “unbearable” pressure on the service.
One said: “Over the next five to 10 years, the large numbers of young and middle-aged people who are so obese will place a huge burden on our healthcare system.
“It’s already unbearable, but it’s only going to get worse. Much worse.
“The consequences of being overweight are well known and people need to find a way to lead a healthier lifestyle now before it’s too late.”
Retired pharmacy worker Kay, who has two daughters and four grandchildren, blames the area’s lack of sports and recreational facilities for the rising obesity rate.
Kay, 75, was born in Ebbw Vale but now lives in Tredegar. She said: “It makes me so sad to walk around and see so many overweight people.
“What makes me even sadder is that so many of them are young.
“They should exercise outside and not stuff themselves with chips or a pizza on the street.
“The problem is that so many facilities here where you could do activities have closed. There is simply nothing else for them to do but buy cheap fast food. All youth clubs are closed and it costs a small fortune to go to the gym.
“When I was young, I was constantly on the go to exercise for free or to pursue a healthy pastime. I’m afraid there’s just nothing left for her now.”
lack of jobs
Mandy, 47, blames the area’s lack of job opportunities for the high obesity rate.
She said: “In cities where there are a lot of good, well-paying jobs, you just don’t see that many fat people.
“Because the poorer you are, the less money you can spend on good food. When you’re poor, you buy the cheapest food you can get, and it’s usually take-out.”
She thinks schools should do more to deal with the crisis. “Children need more instruction in preparing good food and understanding why they need it. But let’s face it, most schools can’t even set a good example by providing a decent lunch.”
Mandy, who works at a local Asda store, says the government should impose a “fat tax” on unhealthy foods.
“Maybe then it won’t be as affordable and the companies that sell this junk will think more about what they’re selling people,” she says. “Typically, people don’t change their habits until it gets in their pockets. It’s just human nature.”
Cath Pitman, 62, was buying pies for her mother at Greggs when we met her. She said: “I’m afraid I’m a fan of cakes.
“The problem is that there are so many places in this city that offer tempting food that isn’t necessarily good for you.
“It’s cheap and that’s what makes it appealing.”
Leanne Davies, 30, agrees. She said: “I live nearby and when I’m in town to shop, I often stop by places that sell fast food because they’re good value and served quickly.”
“The fast food restaurants are generally good value for money. I don’t really know of a good place to eat around here.”
Nestled among the many fast food outlets on Ebbw Vale’s Main Street lies Arlos Organics, which was founded nearly three years ago by owner Lorraine, 51.
“We’re in the middle of the cost-of-living crisis, so it’s not surprising that people are opting for the cheapest food available, but I’ve always maintained that fresh, healthy food can also be affordable,” she says.
“I try to make sure everything I sell here is priced to suit all budgets. You don’t have to spend a lot of money to eat well. There has been a misconception that the only cheap food out there is junk food.”
“People need to think more about what is best for their bodies when making food choices. My daughter works in the NHS and sees the problems poor nutrition can cause.”