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Celia Larkin: Resolutions must be for life, not just for January

It should be about now that your New Year's resolution is coming under pressure. The nights are long, it's wet and windy, and summer is such a long way away. "Maybe I'll order a takeaway, just for tonight. Sure I can make up for it tomorrow." Sound familiar?

I've heard January called the month of self-loathing. For me, that's a very negative term. I'd much rather hear it called the month of self-controlling. After the excesses of Christmas, it is somewhat of a relief to indulge in a dose of self-denial. For a while, anyway.

Have you ever noticed, most New Year resolutions are about losing weight and getting fit? And, typically, most New Year resolutions falter about mid-January, just when our digestive system and financial health are beginning to recover from the over- indulgences of December.

Year in, year out, it's the same story. And it will remain so unless our attitude to food and drink actually changes and we adopt a different lifestyle. (Definition of madness: keep doing the same thing, but expect a different result.)

Roisin Shortall, Minister of State at the Department of Health, certainly raised a few eyebrows with her comments in relation to parents allowing children to drink at home.

"There is this relatively new idea that if young people are drinking at home then it is okay, because at least they are not out taking drugs. That needs to be challenged ... Parents need to think of the example they are giving, both in the way they consume alcohol and the very high tolerance they have of young people drinking," she said.

It's hard to argue with her, particularly around the time of the Junior and Leaving Cert results when you can witness young boys and girls out partying hard -- with money they got from their parents in most instances. What the admirably direct Roisin hasn't (yet) hammered home is that it isn't just the money for drink that parents hand on. It's their own imbibing pattern. The evidence is that the more parents drink, the more their kids will drink; and while ritual introductions of teenagers to alcohol at family events may make parents feel easier, it's minor when it comes to influencing how they'll drink, when set against what they see their parents doing, year on year.

However, an equally worrying aspect of public health is the rate of obesity in Irish children -- 300,000 children are obese and the number is increasing at a rate of 10,000 annually. In 2010, the OECD senior health economist Franco Sassi claimed: "Although the data are not fully comparable, there are indications that obesity rates have increased by 40 per cent in Ireland in the last 10 years and there is no reason to think that growth will slow down in the near future."

As a nation, we are a ticking bomb on health issues. Right now, when the rate of drop-out from private health insurance is at an all-time high and stringent cuts are having a detrimental effect on the level of public health service available, it's high time the whole issue of lifestyle was addressed.

Most of us are aware that excessive alcohol consumption can lead to liver damage, but the effects of obesity are equally worrying. Arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis, cirrhosis of the liver are but some of the problems resulting from obesity. More worryingly, since obesity in women has risen from 13 per cent to 21 per cent, children born to obese mothers are at a heightened risk of dying by the age of 12 months.

The government campaign on obesity awareness is arresting. The first time I saw the ad I got the fright of my life. "Women should measure less than 32 inches around the middle and men less than 37 inches," the commentator said coolly. I had no idea the measurements were actually that low. It was enough to send me scurrying for the measuring tape. (And no, I am not going to tell you the results of my investigations.) I had attributed my expanding waistline to age, but to call me obese if my measurement was above 32 inches, that was a completely different kettle of fish. It was enough to kick-start me into action and put a halt to the expansion.

But is it reasonable to expect our Government to shoulder the full responsibility for the health of the nation? The real responsibility for our health, our self-created problems, must surely lie with ourselves.

Minister Shortall indicated that as part of the Public Health Act to be drawn up this summer, the Government will consider the recommendations on controls in pricing and advertising of alcohol, along with strict enforcement of the laws governing the sale of alcohol, expected to be outlined in the report from the National Substance Misuse Strategy steering group.

Another success has been drink awareness in relation to the road safety campaign. However, it's unreasonable to expect our Government to act as a nanny state when it comes to where and what foods we buy. Surely the introduction of higher taxes on fatty foods and sugary drinks, or changes in the planning laws whereby fast-food outlets may not be allowed to locate close to schools, is a bridge too far?

What next, boot camp for the thick-waisted? There's only so much spoon-feeding (excuse the pun) a government can do. Undoubtedly it is beneficial to raise awareness, but as anyone who has started the New Year with the best of intentions will confirm, unless you actually change your total lifestyle, old habits creep back in very quickly.

The Government can ban the advertisement of all alcoholic drinks. It can refuse to allow drink companies to sponsor sporting events. It can slap a levy on fatty foods and run public awareness campaigns 'til the cows come home. But until we as individuals accept responsibility for our own wellbeing and that of our children nothing will change. We need to change our lifestyle. For more than January.

Sunday Independent