Farm Ireland

Friday 19 October 2018

Opinion: Battle against the bulge will have to begin in our classrooms

Stock picture
Stock picture
Professor Donal O'Shea
Ann Fitzgerald

Ann Fitzgerald

What would happen if there was a monster stalking the land, killing, by a wide range of means, a large and growing cohort of the population? Wouldn't you expect a mass mobilisation of state services to tackle the monster? Well, that monster is already on the rampage. It's called Obesity.

Obesity in Ireland has doubled in the past 30 years, to a current, rapidly rising, figure of 23pc of the population.

This chilling fact was highlighted by one of the country's foremost obesity experts, Professor Donal O'Shea, in a recent talk to parents at Kilkenny College.

He said two other really scary things.

One is that they (doctors) no longer talk about the diseases that obesity causes, "because it causes every disease and makes every disease worse".

From his tone, it was obvious that this was not the first time he has said this.

He pointed out that there is no point in telling someone with a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 50 to eat less and walk more because their energy system is basically blown. (His explanation was rather more technical). So next time you see an overweight person, "don't give out, empathise", he said.

I agree that demonising the person is not helpful. However, we all need to be clearly informed about the probable outcomes of our lifestyle choices. No different to cigarettes, mega-calorie foods and drinks should carry a warning that, "Obesity Kills".

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I left with a resolve to try to prevent myself and, by good example and shopping choices, the rest of the family, from getting fat in the first place.

But while we should all try to avoid becoming obese, its obvious that we need help. Especially as the monster is being continuously egged on by those it is enriching, and because those more vulnerable to its clutches are less able to fend it off (the level of obesity is higher among lower socio-economic groups).

We need State leadership.

While the country faces many demands for its limited resources, efforts on this front would be readily repaid (in terms of medical costs avoided), not to mention the benefits for those personally concerned.

Japan has one of the lowest rates of obesity in the developed world, at 3.6pc.

Behavioural differences between us include the foods they eat (more rice and veg, less meat), the attitude to eating (smaller meals, no food is demonised) and the level of activity (the majority of children walk or cycle to school).

In 2008, Japan also introduced a 'Metabo' law, whereby individuals are compelled to stay below a certain "waist" limit. O'Shea pointed out that compulsory measures rarely succeed.

But that is not to say that laws shouldn't be changed. Donal O'Shea said he supports a sugar tax but the money generated has to be used in the fight against obesity, and not just pooled into the tax kitty.

I often notice that wholegrain versions of foods like pasta cost much more than the "white" ones. It has to become easier to make healthier choices. If this battle is to be won, it will be by the ounce.

I also believe a new subject called Obesity - not something woollier - should be introduced in secondary schools, and it should be obligatory.

Not only because of the growing problem of childhood obesity but also because behaviour patterns are still being formed in this age-group.

It would cover areas like cookery (plenty of nutritious food is inexpensive but many people don't have the requisite skills to prepare it), physical exercise, and marketing (to learn how behaviour can be influenced by food/drinks manufacturers).

Obesity will only be beaten when it can no longer catch those being chased.

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