Saturday 24 August 2019

Niamh Horan: 'Our health's up to us but we need help to say no to junk food'

'It's no surprise then that 68pc of respondents to the Kantar Sunday Independent poll agreed with Ireland's recent sugar tax.'
'It's no surprise then that 68pc of respondents to the Kantar Sunday Independent poll agreed with Ireland's recent sugar tax.'
Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

On the surface, the fact that 92pc of Irish people feel health is a personal responsibility is good news. Whether we pick the salmon or burger, the salad or chips, we now know we are accountable for our choices. It's that simple.

And yet when it comes to food, the most widely abused drug of the 21st century, why are we all so powerless?

We know it leaves us at risk of more than 200 chronic medical conditions from diabetes to cancer, heart attack to stroke and yet over 62pc of Irish people are obese or overweight - and that number is growing.

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It's no surprise then that 68pc of respondents to the Kantar Sunday Independent poll agreed with Ireland's recent sugar tax.

It seems they need as much help as they can get steering clear of that highly addictive white stuff: sugar.

In response, Dr Donal O'Shea, the man who spent six years fighting for its introduction, is delighted. "I am thrilled. And yes, absolutely, I see it paving the way for a more aggressive legislative approach to our food environment," he says.

His sights are now set on ensuring junk food is sold in plain packaging - rather than the array of colourful "visual stimuli" at cash registers that is irresistible to shoppers.

We now must face the fact that all the knowledge in the world about high sugar, high fat, high salt foods hasn't stopped us from becoming fatter.

If 92pc of us feel that health is a personal responsibility, then surely we would all be walking around with svelte bodies rather than failing one healthy eating plan after the next.

Why then, is it that every time many people try to eat a healthy diet, they fall off the wagon? That one 'cheat day' or dessert turns into weeks of unhealthy choices? The scales shoot back up and they end up feeling like moral failures.

If that sounds like you, then Dr O'Shea has some soothing words: "Stop beating yourself up! Stop thinking it's your fault. The most important step that society has to take over the next number of years is exactly that. Stop blaming yourself. Realise it is the environment that is driving your pattern of consumption and realise the [junk food] industry is about five or 10 years ahead of anything we are thinking of in their researching, in their marketing, in their design. And when you realise that - exactly as we did with the cigarette industry - then you will be able to run education programmes that truly inform and truly empower people and introduce legislation to manage the food and drinks industry."

He sounds exasperated when he says the next line because I've heard him repeat it countless times over the years. "It is clear," he says, "the industry cannot regulate itself. Its bottom line is profit. Anything that damages that in the short-term, it can't entertain."

Addiction is the continued use of a substance despite harms that outweigh the benefits, with a lack of control over substance use. Many people now cannot control their food intake or their unhealthy choices even when it is having an adverse effect on their health. Like the cigarette or the glass of alcohol, food is used when we feel irritable, restless and stressed. We numb ourselves on it, and even positive feelings can lead us to eating more.

I wonder how prevalent food addiction is in Ireland given the World Health Organisation's warning that Ireland will be Europe's fattest nation by 2030, with 89pc of men and 85pc of women being overweight.

"The truth is we don't know the answer to that," says Dr O'Shea "but there is a threshold where comfort eating becomes more than comfort eating. I think everybody comfort eats and everybody has a stress food, and that is fine - once it is an occasional thing."

He admits he has to stay away from wine gums because they are his 'comfort food'.

So where does it cross the line into addiction or compulsive over-eating?

"When the dominant distress in life is around your pattern of food consumption then, regardless of your weight, you have an eating disorder and the only way of dealing with that is getting professional help. It is usually the bones of six months of sustained regular therapy before you will be out on your own again."

In the meantime, respondents to the Kantar Sunday Independent poll are clear they want more Government intervention in their day-to-day choices. More than half of us (59pc) agree it should be the responsibility of the Government to intervene to ensure people look after their health, while 57pc also agree that a minimum alcohol price plan is a good idea. Without the State stepping in, the food and drinks industry will continue "grooming" us, and our children, as Dr O'Shea succinctly puts it.

Sunday Independent

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