Obesity has reached epidemic proportions in Ireland, WHO says

Ireland ranks ninth in Europe for obesity in adults as pandemic compounds issues

Overweight and obesity have reached epidemic proportions in Ireland and other European countries, with the problem compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a new report from the World Health Organisation.

Almost six out of every 10 adults is overweight or obese in the WHO European region, as is one in three school-aged children and one in every 12 children aged under five.

There have been "consistent increases" in the prevalence of overweight and obesity in Europe and no country is on track to reach a target of halting the rise of obesity by 2025, according to the WHO European regional obesity report.

Ireland ranks ninth of 53 European countries for obesity in adults and 11th for overweight and obesity. Irish five- to nine-year-olds rank ninth for overweight and obesity while 10- to 19-year-olds rank tenth.


Being overweight or obese is the fourth most common risk factor for non-infectious disease, after high blood pressure, diet and tobacco, according to the report, and it is the leading risk factor for disability.

The report draws on comprehensive figures from 2016 but the WHO says data since then points to a further increase in obesity rates, particularly since the pandemic. A number of country studies have pointed to increases in overweight and obesity in children during the pandemic.

In Ireland, one-quarter of adults are obese. A total of 61 per cent of adults are overweight or obese; 66 per cent of men and 55 per cent of women. Among five to nine year-olds, 34 per cent are overweight or obese.

In Ireland, the report notes more than 20 per cent of women are obese when they become pregnant, with rates higher among women from poorer backgrounds.


During the pandemic, people living with overweight and obesity were disproportionately affected due to greater exposure to obesity risk factors as well as disruptions in treatment services during the pandemic, the WHO says. They were also more likely to suffer severe illness and outcomes from contracting Covid-19.

Meanwhile, lockdowns and other measures designed to curb the virus gave rise to a host of factors, such as stress and economic hardship, that may promote obesity, the report notes.

The WHO says obesity is a complex disease with many underlying causes and therefore needs a multifactorial response. Policy interventions that target environmental and commercial determinants of poor diet in the population are likely to be most effective at reversing the obesity epidemic.

Across Europe, obesity is linked to at least 200,000 new cancer cases annually, with this figure projected to rise in the coming decades. In some countries, obesity will overtake smoking as the main risk factor for preventable cancer in the coming decades.

The report calls for taxes and restrictions on the sale and marketing of unhealthy food products, subsidies to increase consumption of fruit and vegetables, and nutrition labelling on food packets.

Greater access to open spaces, and improved walking and cycling facilities, are aslso recommended.

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen is Health Editor of The Irish Times