Child obesity needs 'holistic approach'
Tackling childhood obesity requires a holistic approach involving parents, schools and wider society, an Oireachtas committee has heard.
Director of Human Health and Nutrition at Safefood, Dr Cliodhna Foley Nolan, said the issue of weight was now a “child protection" issue.
Addressing the Joint Committee on Health and Children, Dr Foley Nolan said while the average height of children had increased by eight inches since the 1940s, the average weight had also gone up by three stone, with one in four Irish children now classified as overweight or obese.
Children who are overweight by age 10 are twice as likely to be overweight as adults, she said.
She told the committee that fat deposits start to build up in arteries from a young age, leading to incidents of 10-year-olds getting high blood pressure.
She also highlighted the metabolic damage and increased risk of pre-diabetes caused by excess weight in children. Dr Foley Nolan said society shouldered some of the blame.
Certain genes get “switched on by the environment,” and an exposure to high energy drinks and food will make someone more likely to want them.
A comprehensive change in attitude is required to stem the problem of obesity, she argued. “It is not a programme that you send a child on; it’s a change of lifestyle.” She added society must overcome huge challenges just to get weight levels down to year 2000 levels. “There is no quick fix solution; this is a long term project.”
She advised against “getting over-excited about individual pieces of research”, or certain technological advances for very specific, diet-related diseases while neglecting the huge number of overweight children in Ireland, which she said was enough to fill “both the Aviva Stadium and Croke Park”.
Gerry Duffy, director of Murduff Wholesale Ltd, a company that supplies sugar-free food products, told the committee that vending machines in Irish schools were inadequately regulated. “Sugar-free schools in Sweden, Denmark, and the US have become healthier and more attentive,” he said.
Fianna Fáil health spokesman Billy Kelleher said it was difficult to get people to eat healthily and exercise more. “Teachers say… parents are incapable of cooking proper food.” Consequently, he said, children end up eating mostly unhealthy, processed food.
Sinn Féin's Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin said schools play an important role but the burden of responsibility rests on parents because they are “most involved in informing children’s diet.”
South Tipperary independent TD Séamus Healy highlighted the cost implications for the State by weight-related health conditions which will arise “further down the road”. He suggested an initiative like the road safety campaign could be used to warn people of the lowered life-expectancy that comes with obesity.
Fine Gael's Denis Naughton complained about the advertising and packaging of food. “You would nearly want a degree in food nutrition” to choose healthy options he said. “Some of the foods not marketed as healthy are healthier than those that are.”
Committee chairman and Fine Gael TD Jerry Buttimer agreed with Mr Naughton, saying there was a “propaganda war going on with certain foods.” He compared some of the marketing within the food industry to that of the tobacco and alcohol industries.
Fianna Fáil's Robert Troy raised the issue of affordability. “There is a perception out there that it is more expensive to eat healthy than to buy junk food”
Senator John Crown, a doctor by profession, spoke of the connection between poor nutrition and cancer. He also said cancer patients who have a healthy weight tend to respond better to treatment. He added that moderation and balance was important. “There is no food that is dangerous when you eat it in moderation and no food that is safe when you eat it in excess.”