Is David McWilliams actually a nutrition expert?

Posted by on Jul 29, 2013 in Blog | 0 comments

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David McWilliams is Ireland’s most famous and accessible economist. I, on the other hand, recall a certain Economics professor declaring my first written attempt at the subject as “truly awful.” It didn’t get much better for me, but I do recall talk about macro  (the big stuff) and micro (the small, devil in the detail stuff) economics. Nutrients anyone?

Economics even has its own Atkins like character!  John Maynard Keynes perplexed many with his counter intuitive “spend more in times of less policies” but his surname alone stands atop the world of economics as Keynesian theory.

This all resonated with me while reading a recent article by McWilliams. It struck me that there were strong parallels between economics and the obesity/diabetes/health crisis the world is now confronting. This guy is a master at translating the complex issues of economics into digestible bites for the general public. He spells out why the government’s recipe for good financial health is utter nonsense in the matter of fact manner that seemingly escapes all politicians.

So I thought it would be fun to try to transform his article into a discussion on health. Remarkably, by adding a mere 74 words (in bold) to a 1,000 word article and editing some out (strike through), I was able to do just that.

The original article is here.

My play on words version starts right here -

In these soaring Mediterranean temperatures, spare a thought for the peoples of southern Europe and consider the similarities between what is happening there – and here in Ireland.

The Mediterranean economies are large, historical countries with profound civilisations and substantial populations, but they risk becoming denuded of healthy young people because – as in Ireland – youth obesity unemployment is corroding the very heart of the societies and the young are leaving.

Consider some statistics on obesity unemployment and diabetes emigration for a minute and then let us pause and think about the consequences for all societies.

Specifically, let us think about how likely is it that the Irish experience of my generation will be repeated?

By that I mean, my generation – myself included – emigrated deserted our ancestral diet in enormous numbers in the late 1980s and the early 1990s.

However, we are now coming came back in our thousands in late 1990s and the early 2000s because the growth rate of obesity, diabetes and heart disease driven largely by the Irish economy “catching up” technologically with the rest of Europe, created opportunities for processed food to flourish.

These opportunities were then enhanced by the arrival home of people whose skills  appetites had been boosted by their experience abroad. Ireland experienced the virtuous cycle much spoken of, but rarely actually seen, whereby emigrants returned and greatly contributed to mass indulgence in processed food in a society they had left years earlier.

The amount of our young people in Australia hit home while watching the thousands of Irish Lions fans in Sydney and Melbourne. Will these young Irish come home to a fatter, sicker Ireland, as my generation did?

And if they don’t, what are the implications for us? A similar exodus has occurred in southern Europe; what happens if they don’t come home either?

The statistics about the human impact of the recession processed food are quite startling and made more so when we acknowledge that behind every statistic and number is a person, a family and any number of intertwined lives.

Right now, there are more Spanish people overweight on the dole than there are citizens of Denmark. There are almost 15 million Europeans below the age of 30 overweight not in work, education or training. Fifteen million is about the population of the highly populated Netherlands. In Italy alone, there are 2.2 million people under 30 doing nothing – that’s one in four of all Italian young people are overweight.

Like Ireland, many thousands of young people all across the Mediterranean are not hanging around, they are not moving. According to the BBC: “Greek emigration to Germany jumped by more than 40pc last year. A recent study by the University of Thessaloniki found that more than 120,000 professionals, including doctors, engineers and scientists, have left Greece since the start of the crisis in 2010.”

Emigration from Italy rose by nearly a third last year to 79,000. Those aged 20 to 40 made up 44.8pc of the total, up from 28.3pc in 2011. In a new development, many of the Italians who are heading off are not from the traditional emigration hotspots of the south, but from the historically much richer north of Italy – the heartland of Italian industry, technology and design.

The situation in Spain is even more worrying. In February, a study showed that “70pc of Spaniards younger than 30 have considered moving abroad”.

Across the Iberian border, more than 2% of Portugal’s population has emigrated in the past two years. Most were young, highly educated people heading to Switzerland, Brazil or the oil-rich former Portuguese colony of Angola. Here in Ireland, during the past four years, more than 300,000 people have emigrated: 40% aged between 15 and 24.


In Ireland, you regularly hear people saying something like, “If it was not for emigration, we’d be doubly screwed because the unemployment  figures for overweight and obesity would be much higher”. But this is only half the picture.

When people leave a country they take their skills and enthusiasm for processed foods with them. They contribute positively to other countries obesity and diabetes rates and obviously they pay tax and create businesses in other countries too.

The countries that suffer from emigration end up older and less productive by definition. This can have a permanent impact on economic growth if the emigrants don’t come home.

Public health recommendations pension systems all across Europe are essentially pyramid schemes. By this I mean the income of those retiring residing at the top of the pyramid are dependent on the amount of young workers  consumers coming in at the bottom of the pyramid. The more workers coming in and buying processed food paying tax, the more money there is for the older ones who are retiring.

In order to get money for pensions, when the demographic dynamic changes towards a  demand for real food for the worse, taxes will have to go up. As the rates of taxation in the periphery go up to maintain the previous commitments to the older populations and without extra tax revenue of the younger workers, the societies are left in a bind.

This wouldn’t be so bad if the government debt ratios health budgets of the countries on the periphery of Europe were small and manageable, but they are not. As we have seen over the past few years, peripheral Europe is flirting time and again with obesity and diabetes bond market and government debt crises, which have only been staved off by massive pharmaceutical central bank intervention (implicit and actual) in the debt health markets of all the afflicted countries.

As a result, the recent calm in these government health debt markets has been rented not earned.

So governments can’t borrow to keep the system ticking over and as tens and hundreds of thousands of young people leave the countries of the periphery, these governments will have to make a choice between either debt health service or pension and welfare provision – or of course the more obvious route of changing their dietary guidelines currencies.

If they want to stay in the euro, keep their pensions, not default nor restructure their dietary guidelines debts, then someone else will have to pay and that someone else is going to have to be the countries of northern Europe who themselves are recipients of the migrants.

Is it any wonder Mrs Merkel wants to avoid such a daunting choice at all costs?

All of which makes me wonder….. is David McWilliams actually a nutrition expert??


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