Blog: When will Sunderland take its health seriously? The hard lessons of life hitting you quickly

An SGM blog

I was never brought up to be healthy, my parents didn’t help of course. In Sunderland and the North East, our local culture is oversaturated with fried and fatty foods. There’s no shame in enjoying it in moderation, quite clearly we enjoy our guilty pleasures because in the economic environment we were raised in, not only was it affordable but also there was little else to “enjoy”.

To have the chance of regularly shopping or dining somewhere quality and “upmarket” is a privilege reserved to Middle Class people, who don’t have the same battles with the cost of living Sunderland folk experience. Hence, our city is filled with takeaways, be it fish and chip shops, kebabs, pizzas or Chinese food and Indians. Chester Road, St. Luke’s Road and Hylton Road have become a triad filled with these places due to their centrality to the rest of Sunderland.

So for myself, I was brought up on this kind of thing. Memories abound of a little boy in Farringdon who would be a constant presence in the Chinese takeaway on Allendale Road, much to the annoyance of its owners. Because his parents worked as a delivery driver, this food pretty much constituted most of his meals and it was no surprise he was mocked as a “cube” in shape. In the North East as a whole, 70% of the adult population are classed as overweight or obese, higher than the rest of Britain.

Now despite admittingly being brought up on a poor diet, and of course being bullied at school for being fat when I was in year 8, I was lucky never to have experienced major health setbacks as a consequence, but that’s only because I have been spared by youth. But recently, starting in 2021, the chickens started to come home to roost in my own family in ways which were a huge warning sign that it is time to change my lifestyle. It’s easy when you’re very young to assume you’re invincible, but age and poor diet catches up with you…

First of all, my dad never ever cared about his health. Ever. He embodied a common attitude in Sunderland to ignore health problems, than to confront them. He ate unhealthily and smoked. By the time he was in his 40s, he developed type two diabetes. Did he do anything about it? Nope. Continued as normal. Then as he turned 50, in 2021, he suffered a debilitating major stroke… 50 years old. He lived to tell the tale, but at the expense of being completely paralyzed down one side to the point of him being wheelchair bound.

His life now involves sitting in a chair all day in an assisted living bungalow in Thorney Close, watching the telly, waiting for carers to come in and look after him. The personal experience of it is miserable and depressing. He can’t work anymore or do anything he wants. It is the cumulative result of not taking your health seriously and making bad lifestyle choices. Perhaps he can recover over time, but for most intents and purposes one can only look at that and think that his life is “effectively over.”

But the story gets worse. Later that year, my mother, who was not actually overweight, suddenly came down with heart disease, again only at around the 50 age mark. This required a triple heart bypass operation. She got through this fine and ultimately recovered, but again it was a terrible scare. More disturbing of course was the revelation by Doctors that this disease was triggered by genetic factors, having also been had by her father (who lives around Southwick).

So being hit by this “double whammy” in the space of the year, I really had to look at myself and think “what is my future?” and “what will happen to me, if I don’t make a serious effort to be healthier?” Sure most of us love our takeaways, but the impact of excessive salt and fat on our bodies over a long term basis is real. This way of life is “feel good” in the short term, but physically degrades us. It makes us age faster, it makes our appearances decline, and of course shortens our lifespan.

Viewing it this way, it becomes part of a vicious circle of negativity which clouds so many people in this region, a sense of hopelessness, despair and pessimism. The idea that “I have nothing to fight for” so I might as well as just oversaturate myself on takeaways, which itself leads to more negative outcomes, and thus gradual reinforcement.

There is a grim English stereotype of a middle aged, bald, overweight man, sometimes described as “Norf Fc” precisely because they like too much fatty food and drink too much beer. Although it is just an internet meme and often used to score political points, there’s something very real about it not just in Sunderland, but throughout all England. Compared to many places in Europe, we are absurdly unhealthy, because “feel good” food is all we have to cling to, with little appetite for exercise.

But I can’t do that anymore. I don’t want to look like that “stereotype” when I become an older man, let alone find myself incapacitated at 50. However, I have no other chance or opportunity left in my life but to “change” myself than now, at the point where I am starting to leave youth behind and have to face the reality of becoming older.

I was just thinking that Tom Cruise is now 60 years old, and he certainly doesn’t look it, there are men 20 years younger than him who look much, much worse. That of course tells us a lot about money too, people in Sunderland can’t afford to be that healthy, and he becomes a crude symbolism of the divide between rich and poor, or fantasy and reality as some call it.

But the truth is, why can’t we aspire to be better? Why can’t be determined to change ourselves? And why should we be lost in negativity to the point the only thing we have to enjoy ourselves is poor lifestyle choices? Not everyone can afford the best food, and there should be no pressure to do so in these challenging times, but there’s nothing stopping yourself from exercising on your own accord and seeking to reinvigorate yourself with youth, energy and optimism.

Please don’t be like my parents.