Start obesity war in early childhood, urges expert

Children must be stopped from gaining weight in the first place, says specialist

Some 20 per cent of children’s calories were coming from high fat, high sugar and high salt treats, conference told. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien / THE IRISH TIMES

Some 20 per cent of children’s calories were coming from high fat, high sugar and high salt treats, conference told. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien / THE IRISH TIMES

Mon, Apr 7, 2014, 01:00

MARIE O’HALLORAN


The battleground for obesity has moved to the playground and industry is the predator, a medical specialist on obesity has warned.

Prof Donal O’Shea said that if “early childhood people aren’t involved we’re starting the fight too late”. He said that 90 per cent of overweight adults can lose a maximum of 10 per cent of their bodyweight and that was why the battle against obesity had to start with children, to stop them putting the weight on in the first place.

The director of the weight management clinic at St Columcille’s Hospital in Loughlinstown, Co Dublin, pointed out, however, that 12 per cent of three-year-olds in lower socio-economic areas are overweight or obese compared to 4 per cent in higher socio-economic areas.


High calorie treats
He told a conference on early childhood on Saturday that 20 per cent of children’s calories were coming from high fat, high sugar and high salt treats “when it should be a barely detectable treat”. It takes “two hours of exercise to counteract a can of coke and a packet of crisps” and there was zero nutrition in the 400 calories they amounted to.

He praised Early Childhood Ireland, the organisation representing some 3,300 providers of childcare, for giving its national conference over totally to “fit for life” concerns of nutrition, exercise and how to promote healthy eating.

The sector was taking action. “We have enough awareness and it is time for action” to deal with the growing crisis.


School to home
A lot of education has to be from the school back to home, he said, citing recycling and the green environment as examples. “None of us were into recycling until our kids came home with the recycling message,” he said.

In the early childhood years children are “like sponges” and this was the time to encourage children. Even in small spaces children could be physically active with exercises such as “Wake Up Shake Up”, which involve them standing up every hour and for 10 minutes jumping up and down to music.


‘Flips a switch’
Speaking after addressing the conference, he said the difficulty for overweight adults is that “once you put the weight on the most your body allows you to lose is 10 per cent of your body weight”. After that the body “flips a switch and effectively goes into shutdown”. People using a gastric bypass can lose 30 per cent body weight. “So a 36-stone person becomes a 28-stone person” and then stops losing weight.

For 90 per cent of people losing 10 per cent of their weight is their limit. He said “if you have a slow, steady approach you can do more than that” but it requires great discipline and therefore is not successful for most people. That is why “you have to go back to kids and stop them putting on the weight in the first place”.

A big problem is that the food and drinks industry is the predator in the playground “dressed as a clown and handing out bottles with children’s names on them”, he said.

Prof O’Shea describes the marketing of soft drinks with individual names on them as “personalised peddling” and said a seven-year-old sees the bottle with his name on it and it’s not that he wants the bottle but “he and the bottle are one”.

This activity doesn’t qualify as promotion but as “branding” and slips under the radar. He added that McDonald’s “is the biggest advertiser of fruit and vegetables in the UK”. The corporation only advertises fruit and vegetables and salads, but this is a very small part of what they sell and that is not how children interpret the advertisements.