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Childhood Obesity – Topical Issues

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In a debate on childhood obesity Minister for  Health James Reilly said:

The need for the Irish Government to ensure that tackling childhood obesity is prioritised by the Government.

Obesity – The problem

I thank Deputy O’Donovan for raising this important topic.  The prevalence of overweight and obesity has increased with alarming speed in recent decades; so  much so that the World Health Organisation calls it a “a global epidemic.” .  The situation in Ireland mirrors the global obesity epidemic, with 61% of Irish adults now overweight or obese. 

Most worrying is the fact that childhood obesity has reached epidemic proportions in Europe, with body weight now the most prevalent childhood disease.  Among Irish children, 25% of children aged 5 – 12 and 20% of teenagers are either overweight or obese.  This is of major concern in that it causes a wide range of serious health and social consequences and increases the likelihood of adult morbidity.  The health consequences of overweight children during childhood are less clear, but a systematic review shows that childhood obesity is strongly associated with risk factors for cardiovascular disease and diabetes, orthopaedic problems, mental disorders and lower self-esteem.  Over 60% of children who are overweight before puberty will be overweight in early adulthood, reducing the average age at which non-communicable diseases become apparent and greatly increasing the burden on health services.  

Special Action Group on Obesity

Earlier this year, I set up a Special Action Group on Obesity, comprising key stakeholders to examine and progress a number of issues to address the problem of obesity.  Alone no single initiative will reverse the trend, but a combination of measures should make a difference.  For this reason the Group is concentrating on a range of measures including actions such as calorie posting in restaurants, the introduction of a sugar tax on sugar-sweetened drinks, nutritional labelling, restrictions on the marketing of food and drink to children, the improved detection and treatment of obesity, revised healthy eating guidelines and the promotion of physical activity. The Group will liaise with other Departments and organisations as required. 

Childhood obesity and the consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks

The World Health Organisation recommends that no more than 10% of daily energy should come from added sugar. They have serious concerns over the high and increasing consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks by children in many countries. Sugar-sweetened carbonated drinks seem to be a contributory factor to the obesity epidemic. Research in the US shows that adolescents there now consume more calories from drink rather than the food they eat. 

Research  (“The National Children’s Food Survey 2005”) has shown that the diets of children in Ireland aged 5-12 contain a high intake of fat and sugar; a low intake of vitamins and minerals; and high physical inactivity.

The Teen’s Food Survey (IUNA, 2007) found that average consumption of carbonated beverages was a glass each day. 20% of teens’ energy intake was from sugars, which is twice the recommended 10% threashold. 

A balanced lifestyle

A balance of food intake and physical activity is necessary for a healthy weight. Foods that are high in fat, sugar and starch or energy dense foods from the top of the food pyramid are known to promote obesity.  Unfortunately Irish children are consuming large amounts of energy dense foods often outside the home while many are not engaging in sufficient physical activity to prevent excess weight gain.

It is of fundamental importance that we remain ever vigilant to ensure that we promote measures to increase physical activity among children and continue to warn of the dangers of excessive consumption of foods high in fat, sugar and salt.

Marketing of Foods and Drinks to children.

Good eating habits and therefore good nutrition is crucial to establish early on in childhood. In this regard Ireland has a Code of Marketing for children which includes some recommendations for the marketing of foods and drinks to children. The revised Broadcasting Act requires the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) to examine advertising to children of foods high in fat, transfatty acids, salt and sugar  and an Expert Group was established to carry out this task and report on its findings.

Conclusion

Improving our own health and our children’s health is a responsibility which we all share. I support keeping children healthy through promotion of healthier lifestyles and improving the environment where they live, play and are educated.

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