Monday 23 September 2019

85,000 children in Ireland will die prematurely due to obesity, research says

As statistics show almost one-third of Irish children are overweight, future generations are facing dire consequences, writes Arlene Harris

Siobhan Donohue, from Bray, with her children (l-r) Cillian, Aoife and Ciaran. Photo: Owen Breslin
Siobhan Donohue, from Bray, with her children (l-r) Cillian, Aoife and Ciaran. Photo: Owen Breslin

Arlene Harris

Our children are getting bigger in every sense of the word, and research has shown that one in four Irish children is classified as being overweight or obese.

This is a shocking statistic, which can have health ramifications for these youngsters throughout their lives.

And with the summer holidays in full swing, there is added pressure from both advertisers and children themselves to stock up on sugary treats and dole them out on a daily basis because 'we're on holiday'.

But while the occasional ice cream or chocolate bar is fine, parents really need to pay attention to what their children are consuming while they are at home. If they have free reign of biscuit tins and freezers full of ice cream, then they may find those school uniforms a little tighter in September. Screen time doesn't help either, as suggested by a recent study in Britain by UK Active, which found a rise in obesity levels over school holidays because children are spending four hours a day looking at screens.

Almost one-third of Irish children are now overweight and this could signify a huge problem for future generations in Ireland in terms of their health.

"In 2016, 9pc of girls and 10pc of boys in Ireland were classed as obese," says Dr Angie Brown, medical director of the Irish Heart Foundation. "According to Safefood research, more than 85,000 children in Ireland will die prematurely from childhood obesity and being overweight. And by 2025, 241,000 schoolchildren will be overweight or obese. As many as 9,000 will have impaired glucose intolerance; 2,000 will have type 2 diabetes; 19,000 will have high blood pressure; and 27,000 will have first stage fatty liver disease (figures from World Obesity Federation)."

Worldwide, more than 38 million children under the age of five are overweight or obese, and the number of school children and adolescents with obesity has increased tenfold from 11 million to 124 million in the last 40 years.

Closer to home, the Cork Children's Lifestyle Study found that one in 10 children (11pc) who took part in the study had high blood pressure, a key risk factor for developing heart disease and stroke. And between 2014 and 2018, 40pc of children attending the W82GO! Weight Management Service at Temple Street Children's University Hospital already had risk factors for heart disease.

Sarah Noone, registered dietician at the Irish Heart Foundation, says the problem is complicated and something must be done if we are to put a stop to this ever-growing trend.

"We know that children from more disadvantaged, low-income backgrounds have been found to be over twice as likely to have obesity and 54pc more likely to have excess weight than those from more advantaged, higher income backgrounds," she says.

"Although there has been some evidence of the stabilisation of rates of overweight children and childhood obesity, this trend hides the fact that rates of childhood obesity are continuing to increase among disadvantaged groups and is due to a small reduction in rates in more advantaged groups, widening health inequalities further."

The reality is, although parents are important in influencing their children's health, they are now facing many complex challenges.

"Obesity is an extremely complex, multi-factorial, chronic, relapsing condition with no one single cause and no simple solution," she explains. "Genetic predisposition, along with individual psychological, environmental and social influences all interact to define obesity risk. And we know that research points to the environment in which we live, which has changed significantly, and social factors as the key drivers of rising obesity rates.

"Advertisers bombard children with slick marketing for cheap, energy-dense processed foods. Shops are often laid out to encourage impulse buying of sweets and crisps by placing these products near checkouts and using price promotions, and fast food outlets are often clustered around schools.

"Access and affordability are barriers for many families to choosing healthier foods and there is a lack of safe pathways and recreational facilities to encourage physical activity, particularly in disadvantaged areas.

"The scale of this challenge is significant and requires a broad approach in which government action on environmental, social and material barriers to health are needed to prevent and manage obesity."

Helping your child to maintain a healthy weight will reduce their risk of ill health in later life.

"A child with obesity is at an increased risk of complex chronic conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, coronary heart disease and stroke in later life," says Noone.

But Siobhan Donohue - who has three children, Ciaran (11), Aoife (9) and Cillian (6) - says trying to keep them away from temptation is very difficult, and something needs to be done to stop companies from getting at children through advertising. "I had a problem with my weight when I was younger and had to lose almost four stone, so I don't want my children to have to go through the same thing," she says. "I am always conscious of how much sugar they eat and have taught them how to look at packaging to find out how much of it is in any particular item.

"But it's a hard battle as kids are faced with adverts all the time, encouraging them to ask parents to buy various brands. Companies know that they can get to us through pester power, as sometimes when a child goes on about something so much, we just give in if we are too tired or just can't listen to the pleading any more.

"Product marketing manipulates children into asking for things, and parents into thinking certain products are healthy, and something should be done about that."

Donohue, who works as a GP, says that while she does her utmost to ensure her children eat as healthily as possible, it can be very time consuming.

"When we were young, we didn't have the same knowledge as is around today, but we also didn't have such an availability of highly processed foods, which are full of sugar and fat," says the Wicklow mother. "There is simply so much junk food on offer today, and sometimes, even the products we think are healthy are actually just disguised as being so and can often be full of sugar and other unhealthy ingredients.

"These days, it requires so much effort to make sure that you are buying the best food for your family. It has also become the norm to have at least one sugary treat every day, which wasn't the case when I was young - so we need to be more vigilant when shopping and not buy the sugary products, because if they aren't in the house, then there will not be any issue with children looking to eat them."

Indeed, reducing the amount of sugary and high-fat treats in your home will make a considerable difference to your child's health, as Claire Long discovered.

"I have always had a sweet tooth, and while I knew it wasn't good for me, I was brought up to think that we should always treat ourselves every day," says the mother of two to Laura (11) and Eva (9). "I suppose I passed the same thing onto my girls and always loved to see how happy they would be with something simple like a bar of chocolate or their favourite fizzy drink.

"But I was absolutely horrified when I took them to the doctor last year (when they both had a virus) and was told that they were overweight, bordering on obese. Neither of them played sport and I put it down to them having asthma, so would always write them a note so they could get out of PE at school. They also seemed to catch everything that was going, and Laura had been suffering from headaches quite a bit.

"I felt like such a bad mother, so decided to make some big changes at home. I cut out the sweets, crisps and drinks on a daily basis and made it a weekend thing (apart from one biscuit in the evening) and started making healthier meals. I also joined us up to the local swimming pool and tried to get out in the evening for a walk or a short bike ride with them. And in the past eight months, both they and I have lost weight and we all feel much better. It was a real eye opener for me."

And the Dublin woman says while changing your lifestyle isn't easy, it will be worth it.

"It's so easy to fall into the trap of having takeaways and ready prepared meals and buying little treats here and there," says Long. "And I have to admit that it does take more than a bit of effort to make changes, particularly as everyone loves a bit of chocolate or a pizza, but the old saying of 'No pain, no gain' is completely true.

"I know now that I was totally to blame for my kids being overweight and I was the only person who could fix it, so I did. And hopefully I have made the difference before it became too late."

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