Obesity levels dropping in many schools
Schools making progress in improving access to healthy eating, experts tell Oireachtas
An Irish Heart Foundation survey indicated that over a quarter of schools had tuck shops selling sweets and soft drinks, and half had vending machines. Photograph: Getty Images
Obesity levels among schoolchildren are stabilising overall and dropping in many schools, new research indicates.
The Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education heard on Tuesday that while poor eating and lack of exercise remain major issues of concern, there are some encouraging trends.
Dr Celine Murrin, assistant professor of public health nutrition at UCD, said the prevalence of overweight and obese children in first class in primary school appears to be stabilising overall.
Data collected as part of a childhood obesity surveillance initiative shows there has been a reduction in the prevalence of overweight and obese children in non-disadvantaged schools.
In addition, overweight and obesity rates in 2015 in disadvantaged schools were the lowest compared with previous studies conducted over the past seven years.
Older children – aged eight years and older – also showed a stabilisation in overweight and obesity prevalence, although girls were more likely to be overweight than older boys.
Dr Murrin said this research showed Irish schools were making progress in improving their environment to help promote healthy eating.
“Key indicators include provision of milk and water, non-provision of sugar-sweetened beverages, sweet snacks and salted snacks,” she said. “Provision of fruit and vegetables is the one area that requires improvement.”
Separate research presented by the Irish Heart Foundation indicates that many schools are failing to ensure healthy choice are available for students at second level.
It pointed to research it conducted two years ago which found that many secondary schools were offering items such as sausage rolls, mini pizzas, Danish pastries and cookies every day.
Its survey indicated that over a quarter of schools had tuck shops selling sweets and soft drinks, and half had vending machines. Many did not have access to free drinking water.
“In other words there was no great difference between the availability of fizzy drinks and free water in these schools,” the foundation said in a written submission. “This is what confronts schoolchildren every day – they learn about the food pyramid and the need to limit their intake of treat foods and drinks.
“But for many, once they leave the classroom, junk products are everywhere, all day long. The temptation pupils face is constant. And the contradiction in what they are taught and then what is widely available to them is frankly breathtaking.”
The foundation said the removal of all junk from sale, including vending machines, was a prerequisite of making healthy food provision the norm in post-primary schools.
The Department of Education said physical education was a core part of the curriculum at primary level, and that a minimum of one hour was recommended for all primary school pupils.
Eddie Ward of the department said PE, along with Social Personal Health Education (SPHE) and Civic Social and Political Education (CSPE), formed a key part of the new wellbeing programme being rolled out at junior cycle in secondary schools.
He confirmed that the department is also working on a new specification for PE as an examinable Leaving Certificate subject.
He said the department acknowledged the commitment of schools in promoting healthy lifestyle choices for students through policies such as healthy lunches, and a range of whole-school initiatives chosen at the discretion of the school.