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Royal College of Physicians of Ireland's Policy Group on ObesityCo-Chair Professor Donal O'Shea
Royal College of Physicians of Ireland's Policy Group on ObesityCo-Chair Professor Donal O'Shea

Fat and sugar-laden diets and no exercise mean that children as young as six are 'switching on' the genes for cancer, diabetes and heart disease in later life, a leading expert has warned.

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Obesity may have levelled off, according to the government-backed Healthy Ireland Survey, but a whopping 60pc of the population are still overweight or obese.

While the obesity rates have fallen by 1pc since 2007, Ireland is still on course to become the fattest country in the EU by 2030, with Irish children (aged five or under) currently the most obese in Europe.

The Royal College of Physicians of Ireland's Policy Group on Obesity is now calling for treatment and weight-management services for overweight and obese children and adults to be provided in all healthcare settings.

An expert report by the group, due to be published tomorrow, will give policy recommendations to address the treatment of all overweight and obese people in Ireland, with a particular emphasis on training for healthcare professionals in the area.

"Obesity needs to be addressed through a national obesity strategy," the Policy Group's Co-Chair, Professor Donal O'Shea told the Sunday Independent.

"We are levelling off overweight and obesity-wise at a level below where the USA has levelled (75pc overweight or obese), but certainly the problem is not over, as what we eat and drink is now the major driver of disease in Ireland."

Over the last 30 years, extreme obesity cases - patients with a BMI over 50 - have increased here by 1,200pc, with patients who have a BMI of over 40 going up by 600pc during the same period.

"Our patients are younger and bigger than ever, so prevention is vital, but we must treat actively too," Professor O'Shea said.

"We don't let our lung-cancer patients fester on waiting lists and deny them access to treatment and it should be no different for obesity."

Last year, the Department of Health took the decision to cut funding for gastric bypass surgeries, which led to a devastating delay for the hundreds of patients awaiting the life-saving - and what Professor O'Shea argues is a very cost-effective - procedure. The surgeries were resumed this June.

"There is still a view in the profession that it is the patients' or parents' fault - this is still getting in the way of generating treatment programmes and GPs still worry about weighing kids in case the parents get cross," Professor O'Shea explained.

"We are absolutely being too PC about the issue; parents don't see overweight in their children and there is still a reluctance to discuss the problem openly.

"Now that we know that 70-80pc of it is an environmental problem, we must discuss it openly so we can change the environment.

"We have a massive problem with physical inactivity and overweight that is already crippling our health service.

"Our research shows that obese kids (aged six and up) have low self image and self esteem, they are insulin resistant and they are turning on their genes for diabetes, heart disease and cancer in later life."

Professor O'Shea added: "Some 15-20pc of obese people are metabolically healthy, but eventually they run into trouble. Obesity gives on average 14 years of chronic disease (diabetes, arthritis, cancer) before you die.

"So lifespan is increasing, but as one medical student said to me recently, 'it is health span we should talk about.' Obesity is reducing our health span and as lifespan increases you end up with a health service that is buckled."

Sunday Independent

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