Obesity and Childhood Discussion

Good evening, and thank you all for coming. I was delighted to be asked to speak here this evening by Cllr. McLoughlin-Healy, as the prevention of obesity is, I believe, one of the single biggest challenges facing our society in the years ahead.

During my time in the Seanad, I have raised obesity and health issues relating to obesity consistently. When it comes to obesity, I think we have a challenge as legislators and as community leaders in getting our message across. The challenge is that people are acutely aware that there is a problem with obesity in Ireland, but tend to tune out of the details or are compelled towards inaction when confronted with the facts.

Yet, the facts continue to paint a starker and starker picture, and so it’s our challenge to try and not simply highlight this issue, as the issue is often highlighted, but to highlight and compel people to care about the issue.

Obesity is recognised internationally and in Ireland as a major health concern. In Ireland, 61% of adults and 22% of 5-12 year olds are classified as overweight or obese. The key policy document in this area, the Report of the National Taskforce on Obesity, is now ten years old. A 2009 review of its execution found only partial implementation of its recommendations had been achieved. It’s clear we now need a new National Taskforce on Obesity and need to reactivate the original intentions of the aims.

We also need to signpost solutions along the way. Simply highlighting the problems without context isn’t particularly helpful. We need to be bringing about solutions that can be embraced by both the individual and, where necessary, by regulation. The third pillar of the solution are initiatives such as FoodRebels, and I applaud Cllr. McLoughlin-Healy for her work on that – it has been a great success to date.

Looking at this crisis in an international context, we can see that Ireland is not faring well by many measurements. If we look at diet, we can see that the latest figures released by the World Health Organisation, show Ireland is on course to become the most obese country in Europe by 2030. This all traces back to our Early Years policy and it’s clear that we need to be intervening at early years where possible – through education yes but also through exercise.

Taking exercise in childhood as a statistic, if we look at schoolyard exercise, it’s been shown that PE alone isn’t enough to make sure our kids are getting enough exercise. Irish primary school children are allocated just over half of the European Union average of 109 minutes of PE classes per week. Yet, many Irish schoolyards also ban running during break times for a variety of reasons including insurance and lack of staff which is crazy. It’s an unenviable position for this generation to be placed in – and it’s not getting any better.

One of the issues which highlights how stark this crisis is a recent Lancet report which highlights the fact that 22.9% of men and 22.5% of women in Ireland are obese. This poses a great many challenges for our healthcare systems in the future. The current cost to the exchequer for obesity related illnesses is €2.6billion – an extraordinary figure.

Another, which highlights how obesity can effect different aspects of our society in different ways, was a study which showed how the risk of obesity doubles for those in low-income households.

The study of Irish childhood obesity discovered that socio-economic levels impacted significantly on a child’s chances of becoming obese, with parents’ social class, education and whether they drink or smoke all having a major impact. This should perhaps be no surprise, as environment often plays a role in a great many aspects of a child’s life, but in this instance it is alarming that the risk of obesity effectively doubles.
It also reveals that children who are obese have an 82% chance of remaining so into adulthood, compared with just 15% of children with a normal weight in childhood.

One aspect which was interesting was a finding that if a mother is obese, a child is 5.5 times more likely to be obese. Again, this is a concerning addition, and may go some way to explaining why those in lower-income households are more susceptible. I still think dietary education can play a huge role here and can highlight how people can feed themselves healthily and very, very inexpensively with fresh ingredients and working from scratch.

Education about food, and eating more healthily, is certainly one component of a holistic, cohesive solution – and I firmly believe that another building block towards solving this crisis is the introduction of calorie counts on menus. The data consistently shows that the more informed people are about their menu choices and the caloric values, the more likely they are to make positive choices or, perhaps it’s better to say, less likely to make negative ones. I’m delighted that the Government have grasped the nettle here despite pressure from restaurants and other stakeholders.

American studies show that when calories are listed on menus, people ate an average of 152 fewer calories at hamburger venues, and 73 fewer calories at sandwich bars with each purchase. Overall, calorie intake was down 6% per day.
If calorie intake was reduced by this much in Ireland, it would have a positive impact on our obesity levels and our type 2 diabetes problems.

The public are behind this initiative also, despite what the restaurant lobby would have us believe. A recent report found an overwhelming demand by consumers (96%) for calorie menu labelling in all or some food outlets, with 89% saying that calories should be displayed beside the price of food and drink items on the menu.

Equally, the restaurant industry is complying with obligations on calorie counts; three quarters of food service businesses favour their introduction, and indeed a number of major outlets – such as Starbucks and McDonalds – have already added calories to their menus.

The way we have implemented calorie counts on menus – such as the simple online calculator will make it easy for smaller businesses to follow suit, and won’t impose any significant cost burden. It also allows loopholes for “dish of the day” specials, so chefs won’t have to be permanently checking calorie counts for one-off meals. This is a fair compromise, I believe, and all told is a large step in the right direction.
The other component of a cohesive strategy aimed at reducing obesity across Irish society is, I believe, the imposition of a sugar tax. Unfortunately, it is controversial and it now seems all but certain that this won’t happen in this term of Government, but that doesn’t mean we should give up on the idea. Our sugar intake is growing exponentially year on year, especially in the form of “liquid sugar” fizzy drinks, which contain a huge amount of calories without actually satisfying any hunger, and it is frankly a disgrace that in a great many shops you can buy a bottle of Coke more cheaply than you can a bottle of water. This has to change, and we have to intervene to make it change.

One controversial suggestion that has been made is tracking and measuring height and weight – I believe we need to go further than what has been said and need to track a variety of measurements relating to a child’s wellbeing and development.

All told, obesity is a ticking timebomb among children with one in four children now classified as overweight or obese, while our adult population will soon have as many as 89% of men classified as overweight or obese by 2030 according to current projections.

This crisis is too urgent not to act. I believe we need to start working on serious solutions today. Education, enforcement, calorie counts on menus and sugar taxes all have a role to play – but awareness of the problem is key, and being able to communicate that is vital, so I’d like to thank Cllr. McLoughlin Healy once again for organising this meeting and congratulate her on her work in keeping this issue on the agenda and I’d be delighted to hear any positive ideas people have here that they feel would help the ever worsening situation.

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