Poor mental health, low self-esteem ‘biggest implication’ of obesity in children

Irish Heart Foundation calls for tax on sweets, and ban on junk-food ads before 9pm

Overweight children experience a ‘negative cycle’ around, says one professor. File photograph: Bryan O’Brien/The Irish Times

Overweight children experience a ‘negative cycle’ around, says one professor. File photograph: Bryan O’Brien/The Irish Times

 

Poor mental health among children who are overweight or obese is “more of a problem than we even realise”, the HSE’s clinical lead on obesity has said.

Prof Donal O’Shea said that while there is an acknowledgement of the physical effects of childhood obesity, the mental health issues associated with it are “massive”, but often overlooked.

“We’re seeing young people with high blood pressure, but I think the biggest implication of overweight and obesity in childhood is around esteem,” he said.

“Children are experiencing increasingly low self-esteem and low image, and then they’re more likely to descend into a cycle of not wanting to go out, not playing.”

He added: “Mental health is multifactorial but there is huge negative imaging around obesity. Kids who are significantly obese feel judged, feel the negative vibes coming at them. It’s a negative cycle.”

Prof O’Shea was speaking at the launch of the Irish Heart Foundation’s childhood obesity manifesto, which calls for a 9pm watershed to be applied to advertisements relating to junk food and for a confectionery tax to be imposed on foods with a high sugar content.

The document also calls for restrictions on price promotions being placed at checkouts and at the end of aisles, in a bid to reduce the sale of junk products.

A survey conducted on behalf of the charity found that 71 per cent of the public would support a ban on the marketing and promotion of unhealthy food and drinks to children.

Some 64 per cent would support extending the sugar-sweetened drinks tax to other products with a high sugar content, rising to 82 per cent if the proceeds are spent on subsidies to make fruit and vegetables cheaper.

Chris Macey, head of advocacy at the Irish Heart Foundation, said environmental factors, such as cost and availability, are the main barriers to addressing obesity in children.

“Research has shown that an unhealthy calorie can be up to 10 times cheaper than a healthy calorie. A tax on confectionery would be a way to balance that,” Mr Macey said.

“What we need is a mandatory programme that is underpinned by taxes that will incentivise businesses to remove sugar from their products. It’s on the same basis as the sugary drinks. If they’re formulated below a certain level then they won’t have to pay the tax.”

He added that tackling confectionery is a “good place to start” in the fight against obesity because they are “non-essential products and they are contributing to the problem in a significant way”.

Speaking at the same event, consultant endocrinologist Prof Francis Finucane said drastic action is required to protect children’s health.

“A crucial element of this is restricting the ultra-processed food industry’s ability to promote over-consumption in pursuit of profit, including through marketing restrictions, taxation and mandatory reformulation,” Prof Finucane said.