PARENTS should stop giving their children sugary drinks and adult-sized portions of food.
Health promotion body Safefood launched a hard-hitting campaign to tackle Ireland's growing epidemic of obesity, with one in four children already overweight or obese by the age of three.
Launching the campaign, Health Minister James Reilly said it was vital to tackle the rising tide of obesity because of the dire consequences of not doing so.
"We could be the first generation to bury our children and that's not the natural order of things, it's every parent's nightmare," he said.
Increased diabetes, heart disease and stroke and osteoarthritis were all associated with obesity, and it had a huge impact on people's quality of life, he said. Lower socio-economic groups were suffering most from this and it was vital a practical message was got across of what people could do to tackle obesity.
Safefood is promoting a number of practical steps it wants parents to take to ensure their children maintain a healthy weight.
These include giving them child-sized portions rather than adult ones, and limiting treats and sugary drinks to the weekend or special occasions.
Some 20pc of the food Irish children eat are "treats" – products high in fat, sugar and salt, which then displace nutritious foods like fruit and vegetables from the diet, said Dr Aileen McGloinn of Safefood.
"They have become a staple in the diet rather than the occasional thing they used to be and it's really important that parents cut back on them," she said.
Increased activity, reduced screen time and plenty of sleep are also crucial to maintaining a healthy weight for children and Safefood is setting out practical tips for how to achieve these.
Obesity expert Dr Donal O'Shea of Loughlinstown Hospital said he was seeing children aged 12 weighing 14.5 stone – more than twice the recommended weight for their age.
Many parents were in denial about their children's weight until it reached chronic proportions, even though the statistics showed over 80pc of obese children would continue on this path in adulthood.
"It's really hard to get them back from that, we have to try and reach children earlier. If someone is 14 stone at 12 they have already switched on the genes for diabetes and their insulin levels are extraordinary, they will get diabetes," he said.
Children's Minister Frances Fitzgerald said Ireland was one of the worst affected countries in Europe for childhood obesity – and this was even worse because of the huge young population here.
"As a state, we cannot afford the future costs of healthcare that will flow if we do not redress the challenge posed by childhood obesity," she said.