Last weekend an unusual competition took place in the village of Turecká, near central Slovakia's Banská Bystrica. Some 140 contestants, broken up into 34 teams of four members, raced to see which team could cook and eat a three-litre bowl of the Slovak national dish bryndzové halušky - a hearty meal of potato noodles in a sheep cheese sauce topped with bacon - in the shortest time.
Although the contestants and the 8,000 spectators who flocked to the usually serene village (population 127) appeared to enjoy themselves thoroughly, health experts shook their heads.
Compared to other European countries, Slovaks are still rather slender, but the country is nevertheless facing a growing problem with obesity (see chart, back page). Local health experts have warned that if the country's inhabitants do not adopt a healthier diet, they will steadily suffer more health problems associated with obesity, such as heart disease and diabetes.
Patrícia Trenčanová, from the obesity treatment division of the Knoll pharmaceuticals firm in Bratislava, said that obesity had traditionally not been viewed by Slovaks as a health problem. "Rather, it's been seen as nothing more than a cosmetic defect," she said.
Statistics on Slovak obesity were not collected until about 10 years ago, while experts in the treatment of obesity, who have tried to teach Slovaks a healthier life style, did not appear until the mid-1990s.
Juraj Payer, an endocrinologist at Bratislava's Fakultná Nemocnica hospital, said that global statistics show that over half the world's population is either obese or overweight.
A person is judged to be obese when their 'body mass index' (BMI) - calculated by dividing one's weight in kilogrammes by the square of one's height in metres - reached a value of 30; overweight people rank between 25 and 30 BMI, while people between 18 and 24 are judged to be at low risk from weight problems.
In Slovakia, Payer said, the situation was similar, with "one and a half to two million Slovaks" obese or overweight. With the country's total population at 5.3 million, Payer's figures mean that 28 to 37% fall into these categories. "We are getting closer to the world average," he warned.
Slovaks have long believed that obesity problems facing other countries - such as the US, Scandinavian countries and South Africa - do not exist in their country, Trenčanová said. Which, she added, was why few Slovaks have questioned the traditional Slovak diet, which is rich in pork, dairy products and fried meats.
"Many Slovaks still have the same eating habits as their great grand fathers had," she said, referring to a time in the early 20th century when the country was primarily rural, and agricultural workers relied on a diet heavy in fat to carry them through the long work days.
"While our predecessors worked hard in the fields or forests, today people have different jobs which don't require so much energy output," Trenčanová continued. "Yet we still eat too much of these traditional foods, which have high amounts of calories."
Traditional Slovak food consists of such staples as fried potatoes, fatty cheeses which are often eaten fried and stuffed with slices of ham, fatty and fried pork meat, several different types of sausages, and the traditional Christmas meal of potato salad thick with mayonnaise and ham.
"Slovaks typically don't eat enough vegetables with their main courses," Trenčanová added. "Even today, you'll often be served a big hunk of meat with a large portion of potatoes or rice, with no vegetables on the plate at all."
But Slovak obesity is not only a result of diet, Trenčanová continued - many Slovaks also fail to exercise.
"They often blame [this lack of exercise] on the country's bad economic situation, which doesn't allow them to spend money on going to a gym," Trenčanová said. "They don't realise that sports can be done without visiting a fitness centre. Regular walks or short runs would be enough to keep fit."
Other experts agreed. The Health Ministry's Ivan Rovný said that only one third of Slovaks realised the necessity of a healthy diet, while the rest of the population ignored or never thought about the issue.
"It's alarming that more than 50% of all employed men have almost no physical exercise at work, and over 30% have a so called 'sit-down job' [office workers, truck drivers]," Rovný said. Women are slightly better off than men, he continued, as over 60% received at least some physical exercise at work.
"Nation of housewives"
Of the 14 countries studied in a survey carried out in 2000 by the International Obesity Task Force, a group which works with the World Health Organisation, Slovakia was one of three countries (with Finland and Greece) which recorded higher obesity rates among the male population than among its women.
While 19% of males were found to be obese in Slovakia, only 14% of the women had the same problem.
"We are a nation of housewives," Trenčanová said. "Women take good care of their husbands, they cook almost every day. And once something is prepared, we like to eat it all - Slovaks don't throw food away."
She added that there was also a difference in how overweight men and women were viewed. While men with a few extra kilos were seen as "manly, strong, and even attractive", larger women were seen as having lost their femininity.
Some Slovak men take pride in their 'beer bellies'. Michal D, a Banská Bystrica bus driver in his 40s, said that he "acquired my 'sense of gravity' after my wedding. My wife is a great cook."
Weighing "about 100 kilogrammes", the 1.7 metre tall Michal D. said his favourite meal was fried potatoes with a fried pork chop. After such a lunch, health experts say, he would have to play football for at least 80 minutes to burn off the caloric intake.
But Michal D says he prefers watching. "I used to play football when I was younger," he said. "Today I like to enjoy a glass of cold beer after lunch and watch the game on television."
17. Jun 2001 at 0:00 | Martina Pisárová