Long overdue campaign to address Ireland’s obesity levels in a co-ordinated way

Major lifestyle changes, especially among young people, needed to ensure healthier outcomes

 

A plan to combat rising obesity levels and avoid the prospect of becoming the fattest society in Europe has been prepared within the Department of Health for adoption by Government. It is not before its time. Alarm bells have been ringing for years concerning the likely financial, medical and social costs of an obesity epidemic.

But it took publication of a World Health Organisation report, last year, to ratchet the issue up the political agenda. The programme for government envisages the introduction of a sugar levy this year along with a schools-based approach to health. It is probably not enough.

One-quarter of all children, and six out of 10 Irish adults are overweight or obese. As with smoking, the incidence of obesity is twice as high within disadvantaged communities as it is in high-income areas. The causes are not hard to find. Surveys have shown that children from low-income families have nearly double the intake of fizzy drinks, crisps, chips and fast-food meals as those from professional households.

Those particular products contain very large proportions of fats, sugar and salt. There is vague talk about reaching an agreement with the food industry to reduce the level of these substances in their products. That will not be easy. Three years ago, the industry successfully blocked the introduction of a sugar tax and attitudes are unlikely to have changed.

The strategy aims to reduce overall obesity levels and to narrow the weight gap between the richest and poorest sections of society. That will involve changes in lifestyle as well as in diet and particular attention is to be paid to schools and to families with young children.

An increase in physical activity, less time watching television and using the smartphone or tablet device and family meals are envisaged, along with the consumption of smaller food portions. So far, investment in education programmes and in community services that would help to drive such change has fallen short. Many overweight parents refuse to recognise the risks facing their children. That must change.

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