Relentless rise in childhood obesity must be tackled

Opinion: shocking obesity rates point to need for integrated approach to problem

It is a shocking admission: we stand to be the first generation who will bury our children. Many members of Irish families will die prematurely due to obesity. The problem is growing at an alarming rate, affecting children as young as two and three years of age.

A severely obese person is likely to die eight to 10 years earlier than a person of normal weight. According to Prof Ivan Perry of UCC, more than 1,000 people die each year from heart disease and strokes because of what and how they eat and because of lack of exercise. People in the developed world should not die because of bad nutrition. Obesity is a time bomb we can defuse.

In 2007, 37 per cent of Irish adults were overweight and a further 24 per cent obese. The rates of obesity and overweight have increased in the past 20 years and continue to grow. Up to 80,000 people in Ireland are now morbidly obese, according to consultant endocrinologist, Dr Francis Finucane, who specialises in treating obesity.

Even more shockingly, the Growing Up In Ireland study showed that almost 20 per cent of nine-year-olds were overweight in 2011 and a further 7 per cent obese. Ireland's only dedicated childhood obesity treatment programme has had a 400 per cent increase in just one year in referrals of children under five years of age.

Long-lasting impact
Today, Ireland is ranked fifth-highest among 27 EU countries in incidence of childhood obesity. The long- lasting impact of early childhood obesity should not be underestimated. Health as an adult is hugely influenced by nutrition in the first 1,000 days of life. Indeed a mother's diet during pregnancy affect a child's birth weight and also on the child's propensity to become obese in later life.

According to a report funded by Safe Food, carried out by UCC department of epidemiology and public health in 2012, the annual cost of obesity to the exchequer is €1.13 billion. It is estimated overweight and obesity account for 2.7 per cent of total health spending. As a result of the obesity epidemic, we are storing up a diabetes epidemic for the future.

At last a whole-of- Government approach involving departments of education, environment, justice and finance has been put in place to help formulate policy to tackle obesity. Many factors contribute to obesity, including genetics, biology, environmental and economic influences. In economic terms, for example, a cut in the prices of foods likely to increase weight contributes to obesity. More intense advertising for unhealthy food aimed at children is also a factor. Cutting down on salt, sugars and fats in processed food would cut the death rate dramatically.

Vending machines
Interventions in schools such as limiting the sale of and access to vending machines and school shops that sell junk food have been quite successful in reducing consumption. It has also been proven that more time spent by young children on physical activity has a positive impact on weight. Children and teenagers need regular exercise. They should be encouraged to play, exercise and participate in sport.

According to Prof Donal O’Shea, consultant endocrinologist and director of the weight management clinic at St Columcille’s Hospital, Loughlinstown: “The big changes in society in the past 25 years have been the pattern of food consumption as well as the volume of food consumption and a cliff edge in relation to physical activity.’

Parents need to be made aware of obesity. They need to know simple things, such as what their child should weigh. Every time a child visits their GP they should be weighed, creating an opportunity for an early intervention before the problem becomes a chronic illness. Parents need to have evidence-based information and support on breastfeeding, information on the optimum time of weaning babies onto solid foods, and portion size appropriate to their children’s ages and weight. No longer should the mantra of “clean your plate” be espoused as if it was a virtue in healthy eating.

This year we will provide training to 2,000 GPs on the new Irish College of General Practitioners’ weight management treatment algorithm.

A so-called fat tax on unhealthy food has been debated. It has been argued that pretty much any food- based tax would lead to a rise in poverty, but also that its effect on cutting obesity is modest.

However, if the Government did propose a “fat tax”, we would have to ensure the money generated was ring- fenced and channelled into schemes that would promote health, sports and activity for young people.

A healthy Ireland requires a whole-of-society approach to improving health and well-being. We need to protect, educate and offer healthy alternatives to the public. Obesity is a problem that will continue to grow, endangering every family, if it is ignored.

Mary Mitchell O'Connor is a Fine Gael TD for Dún Laoghaire