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A big problem, getting bigger


FOOD FIGHT  Junk food and other poor lifestyle choices are setting the next generation for a life-time of health problems. 

Ireland must face up to the reality of child and teen obesity

Paul O'Brien

The recent revelations from the ESRI’s Growing Up in Ireland studies should be required reading for any parent. The studies analyse everything from schooling and family relationships to physical health and socio-economic development.

Figures don’t lie
The figures show that up to 20 percent of five year olds are either overweight or obese, with deviations in this figure, according to socio-economic influences.
Take a moment to reread that figure, and remember, these are five year olds!
Go into the teens, and the ESRI figures become starker. On the positive side, the researchers find that there have been statistically significant decreases in overweight and obesity levels among certain groups. The study also found that 50 percent of overweight three year olds and 24 percent of obese three year olds were not overweight or obese at five years of age.

Whilst there is certainly some encouragement to be taken from certain findings, we don’t have the luxury of a collective pat-on-the-back just yet. Especially given that 13 percent of three year olds are still overweight or obese at the age of five. These figures would have been unimaginable a generation ago.
While it’s clear that centralised public-health policy and multi-faceted interventions are helping and will continue to play a key role, there is much we can do on an individual, community and family level.

The micro-strategy
Parents, teachers and community leaders tasked with the education, care and welfare of children play a vital role in tacking what could become a major epidemic. Ireland is predicted to have one of the highest adolescent and adult obesity rates in Europe by 2030. This sounds insurmountable, but it’s not. You can make a difference – in your home, your school and your community.

In the home
It’s important to address behaviour in relation to food and exercise rather than focusing on  weight.
Focusing on weight and using words like ‘obese’, ‘overweight’, ‘heavy’ or ‘fat’ can create a stigma around weight and further encourage unhealthy behaviours. Children learn to develop a negative language of lack, shame and low self-esteem about their body image.
Focusing on healthy behaviour that positively affects weight loss is a smarter approach. Encourage kids to unplug at certain times of the day, to do activities that they enjoy, eat real foods and learn to deal with stress. These behavioural approaches will promote healthy habits that positively affect weight.

Educational benefits
The proliferation of programmes like the Mile-a-Day, whereby children are encouraged to walk or jog one mile every day while at school, is very encouraging. The amazing results reaped from this approach to fitness are documented in John J Ratey’s book ‘Spark’, which describes how after it implemented one such programme, the school district of Naperville, Illinois, became best in the world in relation to science test-score results. These programmes are becoming more and more prevalent across Ireland, which is great news.
Schools could also open their doors to health and fitness professionals, people with expertise who can deliver talks, programmes and even mentorships for students.

Community cooperation
As communities, we all share a responsibility to our children to provide a more empowering and life-affirming environment, one that will promote the good health of young people. Parents’ groups can lobby local supermarkets to provide more healthy alternatives to common snack foods.
By far the best step we can take is to model healthy behaviour for our children. Regularly participating in enjoyable activities, organising sports and social events, enjoying days out in nature, eating real foods and encouraging kids to be autonomous through the setting of powerful goals are all easy strategies to implement.
The future of our country’s health is our responsibility. The total lifetime costs of childhood obesity in the Republic of Ireland are estimated to be €4.6 billion, with the direct healthcare associated costs estimated at €1.7 million.  If body mass index (BMI) was reduced by 1 percent, the lifetime cost of childhood overweight and obesity would be reduced by €270 million. A BMI reduction of 5 percent would reduce the lifetime costs by €1.1 billion. It makes economic and moral sense.

Paul O’Brien is a certified personal trainer with the American Council on Exercise since 2007 and a qualified Life, Health & Nutrition Coach. He is co-owner of Republic of Fitness in Westport. He can be contacted on 086 1674515 or