Tuesday 21 October 2014

Why is Ireland so fat?

The WHO says we're facing an obesity epidemic, yet we gobble up fitness books. Chrissie Russell reports

Orla Brady
Orla Brady
Colin Farrell
Colin Farrell

A new warning from the World Health Organisation last week revealed that Europe is facing a 'deadly' epidemic of obesity.

Chief among those countries revelling in a disastrous diet high in fats, salts and sugars but low in physical activity is Ireland, where 30pc of 11-year-olds are now deemed to be overweight.

But at the same time, sales of diet and fitness books are soaring – up 50pc last year – we've more knowledge on healthy eating and greater access to gyms compared to previous generations.

We even have greater access to a wide range of foods and more disposable income than our grandparents – so why are so many of us fat?

Two out of three Irish adults are overweight, with experts predicting that half the country's over-18 population will be categorised as 'obese' by 2030.

Considering we're living longer and know more about nutrition, we should be healthier than ever.

"The level of education is good and you would expect the situation to be different, but that's not the case," says Professor Donal O'Shea, obesity specialist with the HSE and Director of the Weight Management Clinic at St Columcille's Hospital in Loughlinstown, Co Dublin.

"There are two main reasons," he explains. "There has been a massive decrease in the level of physical activity over the last 30 years and it's happened in parallel with a big change in the way we eat and what we eat."

Our grandparents might have walked everywhere and survived on meagre portions of simple food but that's not how we do it today.

The 2011 census shows that car ownership has been rising steadily since 1986, we're more dependent on private vehicles when commuting to work and the proportion of primary, secondary and third-level students walking to school or college has maintained a long-term pattern of decline. It is now estimated that just one third of the population of Ireland is meeting the recommended weekly levels of moderate physical activity: 150 minutes.

Portion sizes have grown, there's more high fat, high salt, high sugar foods on the market and the boom in technology means we're spending more time in front of screens than out and about.

Whilst our grandmothers' roles may have been focused solely on the home, cultural changes mean more women are now in full-time employment and a rise in shift work means it's not always possible to provide a home-made, sit-down family meal every night – even though studies consistently show that children who eat with the family are less likely to be overweight.

Culturally life has changed and it's showing on our waistlines, but one of the most worrying aspects of Ireland's growing obesity problem is its grip on the younger generation.

One key problem is that children are often being given control to make decisions that would have been unthinkable generations ago.

Ruth Charles, a consultant dietitian specialising in paediatrics (nutrikids.ie) agrees. "Many parents argue that they have the right to feed their families whatever they like, that it's their choice," she says. "But with choice comes responsibility and for every choice there's an effect.

"Relying heavily on ready meals, deli sandwiches, takeaways and so on means a larger than ideal intake of calories, fat, salt and sugar, high food costs and higher risk of weight gain, heart disease and certain cancers."

Aled Hughes' private consultancy business (aledhughes.ie) is currently oversubscribed with children who need to get fitter. He says focus on exercise has changed in education.

Irish Independent

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