Saturday 7 December 2019

Time has now arrived to tackle the fat of the land

According to a study conducted by King’s College London, an obese person’s chance of returning to normal body weight is one in 210 for men and one in 124 for women.
According to a study conducted by King’s College London, an obese person’s chance of returning to normal body weight is one in 210 for men and one in 124 for women.

John Greene

Last summer, a leading researcher in the UK issued a stark warning: "Once an adult becomes obese, it is very unlikely that they will return to a healthy body weight," said Dr Alison Fildes.

How unlikely? Well, according to a study conducted by King's College London, an obese person's chance of returning to normal body weight is one in 210 for men and one in 124 for women. This increases dramatically for those who are severely obese, to one in 1,290 for men and one in 677 for women.

"New approaches are urgently needed to deal with this issue," said Dr Fildes. "Obesity treatments should focus on preventing overweight and obese patients gaining further weight, while also helping those who do lose weight to keep it off. More importantly, priority needs to be placed on preventing weight gain in the first place."

In October, a report by the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland stated: "The steady increase in the prevalence of overweight and obesity in Ireland during the last three decades mirrors trends in other countries and represents a huge public health challenge because of the associated morbidity and mortality from diseases like diabetes, cancer and heart disease. Health gains achieved as a result of measures which addressed smoking, high blood pressure and high lipid levels are in danger of being reversed by obesity."

And added: "As rates of obesity rise exponentially, we will see a parallel increase in healthcare costs from associated noncommunicable diseases (NCDs). The cost of overweight and obesity in Ireland in 2009 including direct and indirect costs was estimated at €1.13 billion. The direct costs represented 2.7% of total healthcare costs for that year."

Speaking in the Seanad last June, Minister for Health Leo Varadkar said: "As well as this financial cost, there is also the significant personal and societal cost.People's self-esteem is generally lower, children may be bullied and their mental health is affected. People with chronic diseases are likely to retire early, have poorer health or die early. There is also a significant loss of productivity to the economy and industry."

Judith Woods asked in The Daily Telegraph recently: "Is it desirable to live in a world where five-year-olds eat and drink their body weight in sugar every year? Where the morbidly obese are routinely winched out of their homes by firemen and everything from MRI scanners to coffins to school uniforms must expand in line with ever-increasing waistlines?"

In Ireland, one in four three-year-olds are overweight or obese; two out of three adults are overweight or obese; and the World Health Organisation says that by 2030 89 per cent of Irish men and 85 per cent of Irish women will be overweight or obese if current trends continue, the highest projected level of any European country.

The problem is acute and tackling it is a huge challenge for our society. In the present it is a fire fighting operation, largely falling on an already overstretched health service. The future is a different story; the future is about prevention.

Somebody said to me last week that PE in schools is dead. Children have long since been failed by it. It was a grim pronouncement. Scrap it, he said, and replace it with a fitness and wellbeing education programme that works.

On the same day, the government published this country's first ever national physical activity plan. There were three ministers present - Varadkar, Paschal Donohoe and Michael Ring - in an effort to convey how serious this problem is viewed. It is encouraging that the working group responsible for this plan consisted of officials from four different government departments, as well as the HSE, DCU, Fingal County Council, Sport Ireland and the Federation of Irish Sport. So a range of expertise was utilised, and funding has been committed, beginning with €5.5m this year. The target is to increase the number of people who are active by one per cent of the population a year for the next decade.

It is easy to be cynical about the timing of this plan but this is not an election issue. It is bigger than that. It must be embraced, it must be supported and it must be followed through. To do otherwise would be to our shame.

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