Wednesday 19 June 2019

The shape we're in: 10 facts about Irish obesity

As a nation, we're getting fatter to the point of a crisis. It's especially prevalent among older people, according to a new report.

Crisis: we have evolved into a nation of overweight people with almost a quarter of the country classed as obese
Crisis: we have evolved into a nation of overweight people with almost a quarter of the country classed as obese
Sugar is addictive in the same way that alcohol is, according to Professor Donal O'Shea.

Kathy Donaghy

The obesity time bomb is no longer just ticking - it has exploded with new evidence showing that a massive four out of the over-50s in this country are now overweight or obese. As a nation, we are getting fatter by the year. Despite an almost daily drip feed of new diet books and regimes, the evidence is we are piling on the pounds.

In a stark warning at the Irish Heart Foundation Conference, the country's leading obesity expert Professor Donal O'Shea said that there's been an absolute explosion in the extreme end of obesity, with a 1,200pc increase in those with a body mass index of 52 or over (18 to 25 is normal).

So what's happening and, more importantly, why is it happening? Here are some of most shocking facts about obesity and the damage - physically, emotionally and financially - it's causing to our society today.

1 Nearly two thirds of us are either obese or overweight

Almost a quarter of us are obese and a further 37pc of Irish adults are overweight. Among the over-50s the figures are even more alarming. According to the Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing led by Trinity College, Dublin, four out of five over-50s in Ireland are overweight or obese. And the study warns that growing numbers of this generation are on a silent road to debilitating disease and potentially fatal diseases. The rates of obesity and people who are overweight have increased in the past 20 years and the numbers continue to grow.

According to consultant endocrinologist Dr Francis Finucane, who specialises in treating obesity, up to 80,000 people in Ireland are now morbidly obese. According to a comprehensive global study of obesity published earlier this year, Ireland's population has overweight and obesity levels in excess of the European average.

The study, which was carried out by the University of Washington in the US, found that 26.5pc of Irish girls and 16pc of Irish boys under the age of 20 are classed as overweight or obese.

2 It's putting our 
children at risk

Shockingly, the obesity crisis is now affecting children as young as three and four years of age. The Growing Up In Ireland Study showed that almost 20pc of nine-year-olds were overweight in 2011 and a further 7pc obese. Ireland's only dedicated childhood obesity treatment programme, at Temple Street Children's Hospital in Dublin, has had a 400pc increase in just one year in referrals of children under five years of age.

According to Grace O'Malley, senior physiotherapist at the hospital, the health implications for children in the short term include hip, knee and back pain, breathlessness, higher risk of asthma, bullying and stigmatisation, as well as high cholesterol and high blood pressure.

She says the long-term effects include poorer educational achievement, risk of heart disease and certain cancers as well as a risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Just last month the secretary general of the Department of Health, Ambrose McLoughlin, warned that the obesity problem among young people was now so bad that the present generation of parents may be the "first to bury our children".

Crisis: we have evolved into a nation of overweight people with almost a quarter of the country classed as obese

3 We lack self-awareness 
of body size

There is a common perception that 'obesity' is a highly visible state of overweight. Definitions of overweight or obese are based on Body Mass Index (BMI) which is obtained by dividing a person's weight in kilograms by their height in metres squared. A BMI of 25 - 29 is considered "overweight" while 30 and above is classified as "obese".

So in fact the BMI cut-off for obesity is quite low and the research shows that adults are poor at identifying overweight in themselves. A UK study found that only 25pc of parents recognised that their child was overweight.

It found that among overweight parents, 27pc of mothers and 61pc of fathers were unconcerned about their weight. Acknowledgment of excess weight and an understanding of its health consequences are essential first steps in tackling obesity.

4 It's costing us millions

The annual cost of obesity is estimated at €1.13 billion, 35pc of this - around €398 million - is in direct healthcare costs. The remaining €728 million are indirect costs in reduced productivity and absenteeism.

A study by Safe Food Ireland carried out in November 2012 found that the main drivers of direct costs due to drugs and hospital inpatient and day case care are cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, colon cancer, stroke and gallbladder disease.

The study recommended urgent public health action to address the burden that overweight and obesity are placing on both the health services and the general economy.

5 A ticking time bomb

A severely obese person is likely to die eight to 10 years earlier than a person of normal weight. According to Prof Ivan Perryof UCC, more than 1,000 people die each year from heart disease and strokes because of what and how they eat and because of lack of exercise. The Institute of Public Health in Ireland has predicted that chronic conditions such as high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, stroke and diabetes are expected to rise by 40pc in the Republic of Ireland by 2020.

According to Diabetes Ireland, there are somewhere in the region of 170,000 people living with type 2 diabetes here with up to 15,000 new cases diagnosed every year. Of those diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, about 80 pc are also obese.

While in the past people were typically diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in their early 50s, today they are being diagnosed in their 20s, 30s and 40s as well. Type 2 diabetes is costly in every sense - apart from complications such as blindness and amputation, it makes you five times more likely to have a heart attack or stroke.

Many people with type-2 diabetes are failing to manage their condition properly

6 Weight and cancer 
risk - the evidence

According to the World Cancer research Fund, the evidence that being overweight increases the risk of cancer is stronger now than ever before. In fact, scientists believe that, after not smoking, maintaining a healthy weight is the most important thing you can do for cancer prevention. Being overweight increases the cancer risk of the following:

* Bowel

* Oesophagus

* Kidney

* Womb

* Breast (in post-menopausal women)


* Gallbladder

Scientists believe there are several reasons for the link between body fat and cancer. For example, research shows fat cells release hormones such as oestrogen, which can increase the risk of cancers such as breast cancer.

Studies have also shown that fat encourages the body to produce 'growth hormones'. Having high levels of these hormones is linked to a greater risk of cancer.

7 It can lead to prejudice and discrimination

Despite worldwide increases in the prevalence of obesity and the recognition that genetics can be a factor for some individuals, prejudice and discrimination towards obese individuals persists.

According to the report of the National Taskforce on obesity published in 2005, "ridicule and disparagement of obese individuals seems to remain a socially acceptable form of prejudice".

It also found there was evidence of clear weight prejudice in areas of life such as employment, healthcare and education.

"Given that existing weight-loss approaches have limited success, many people remain overweight and must cope with stigma for years," the report stated.

8 Sugar is a big part 
of the problem

According to Professor Donal O'Shea, the scientific evidence that is there towards sugar contributing to the obesity crisis is stronger now than ever before. Reduce sugar intake in children and you will lower the impact on the child's weight, he says.

"Sugar is addictive in the same way alcohol is addictive. Sugar as in sucrose is less addictive but we consume it in such large amounts," he says.

"The same parts of the brain that light up with alcohol light up with sugary drinks. People will not let their kids smoke a cigarette or drink a glass of wine - there has to be the same attitude to daily consumption of sugar sweetened drinks. These should only be consumed by children very occasionally."

Irish Independent

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