Ireland has ideal combination of leaders to tackle obesity crisis – health expert

Random cruelty underlines stigma associated with obesity, says Prof Donal O’Shea

‘Micheál Martin (right, with Leo Varadkar, centre, and Eamon Ryan) was Minister for Health when he launched the obesity taskforce and I hoped it might get legs now that he is Taoiseach,’ said Prof Donal O’Shea. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times

Widespread “random cruelty” directed at people who are obese highlights the importance of changing the mindset, according to a health expert.

Prof Donal O’Shea said Ireland now has the ideal combination of political leaders to tackle the crisis “if only we could pull ourselves out of Golfgate”.

The consultant endocrinologist and physician said the Covid-19 pandemic should focus political minds on the need to tackle the stigma surrounding obesity and the lack of access to treatment.

He said it was a good time for the Government to tackle the obesity crisis by changing mindsets and improving access to treatment.


“Micheál Martin was Minister for Health when he launched the obesity taskforce and I hoped it might get legs now that he is Taoiseach. Unfortunately he has been otherwise distracted with his attention being diverted from one event to the another,” said Prof O’Shea.

He added that with Leo Varadkar another former minister for health as Tánaiste and given the leader of the Green Party Eamon Ryan’s interest in active transport “If ever we had the right combination in Government to tackle obesity it is now if we could only pull ourselves out of Golfgate”.

Prof O’Shea, the HSE clinical lead for obesity was one of a number of experts who addressed the second annual Obesity Summer School, an online event hosted by the HSE and the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland on Thursday.

With 60 per cent of adults and one in five children in Ireland classed as overweight or obese, Prof O’Shea said too many people regarded obesity as a “lifestyle choice” and this was exacerbating the stigma.

He highlighted one case of a man in his 50s who just last week was subjected to a torrent of abuse by someone driving past who rolled down a car window and shouted abusive comments about his weight.

Prof O’Shea said a woman in the Irish Coalition for People Living with Obesity (ICPO) had also recently shared a story of how when she lost her phone and picked up a friend’s phone to ring her own number, she discovered herself listed as “fat Louise”. There was no malice intended by the woman who listed her friend in this way but it did show how obese people are judged, including by members of the medical profession, said the consultant.

He said suggesting that people who are obese should simply “eat less and move more” was like telling people with lung cancer to give up cigarettes without providing any treatment. “This attitude is almost more prevalent within the medial profession and the average medic or physiotherapist is leaner so there is often a sense of being judged among who are obese”.

Prof O’Shea said many people wrongly believed willpower was all that was needed to combat obesity. “If it was just about willpower 60 per cent of the population wouldn’t be affected. If it was about willpower the person who is 25 stone who wants to not be 25 stone would simply eat less. It is not that simple,” he stressed.

The summer school was particularly timely this year “because we are increasingly realising the stigma associated with obesity” and also because of research showing that people with severe obesity had very poor outcomes if they developed Covid-19.

An international study published this week by the University of North Carolina (UNC), Saudi Health Council and World Bank showed that obesity increases the risk of dying from Covid-19 by 48 per cent and the risk of needing intensive care after contracting the virus, by 74 per cent. Prof O’Shea said this was in line with the experience here.

Marese McDonagh

Marese McDonagh

Marese McDonagh, a contributor to The Irish Times, reports from the northwest of Ireland