Statements on Tackling Obesity in Ireland, 17 June 2015

The Minister is always very welcome to the House. The time he has dedicated to today’s debate shows that he has an understanding of the importance of this issue and the serious health concerns associated with it. There is no doubt that we are IN the midst of a full-blown obesity epidemic. It is shocking that 61% of adults and 22% of children between the ages of five and 12 are overweight or obese. Given that this issue is so costly and damaging to the health and well-being of the nation, it is difficult to understand why we are still discussing strategies rather than implementing the excellent strategies we already have. The national task force on obesity has been operating for almost ten years, but its recommendations have been implemented in a partial and haphazard manner. The then Minister for Health, Deputy Reilly, established a special action group on obesity in 2011. This group highlighted priority areas and policy recommendations, such as an introduction of a sugar tax and the improvement of nutritional labelling. These are very cost-effective ideas, but four years on there has been no action towards implementing any of them. Children remain particularly vulnerable. The Government’s failure to act is having a particular impact on them. They are increasingly vulnerable to chronic diseases, premature deaths and disability in adulthood.

Given the negative impact of obesity on people’s health, it is understandable that we talk about it in a critical and negative way. However, we need to be mindful in our discourse that obesity and excessive weight are realities that people live with and struggle to overcome. This is especially important when we talk about childhood and adolescent obesity, which can have a significant impact on the self-image, self-esteem and confidence of the young person affected. For many years we have associated malnutrition with lack of food or starvation, but in fact that is under-nutrition. Obesity is the result of malnutrition, which is a poor diet with a lack of adequate nutrition for proper growth and development.Not everyone who is malnourished is overweight or obese but this does not mean that he or she is not seriously damaging his or her future health. It is imperative, therefore, that we shift the focus to a more holistic healthy lifestyle approach, with nutrition and exercise as its linchpins. We must tackle the unhealthy obsession that has developed about being fat, counting calories, “yo-yo” dieting and losing weight, all of which are serious issues among young adults, especially females.

As previous speakers pointed out, school is where children spend the majority of their time in the company of their peers. Physical education in schools is essential to a child’s physical and mental development. The children’s sport participation and physical activity study of Irish students in primary and post-primary education found that a mere 35% of primary pupils and 10% of post-primary pupils received the minimum 120 minutes of physical activity in school per week, as recommended by the national task force on obesity. One in four of the children surveyed was unfit, overweight, obese or had elevated blood pressure.

A 2013 report by the European Commission, Physical Education and Sports at School in Europe, found that the provision of physical education at primary level in Ireland is the third worst in the European Union, while at post-primary level, it was found to be seventh worst in the EU. This failure to ensure the weekly minimum of 120 minutes of physical activity for children is a serious blow to children’s health. We must promote physical activity, participation in physical education and non-structured play during school hours. Children should be encouraged to engage in team sports, join activity clubs in the community and simply enjoy the outdoors. When they learn these habits at primary school level they continue to be active throughout their teenage years, thus reducing the risk of obesity.

I am concerned that parents do not have control over children’s eating habits when they are outside the home. While healthy lunch policies are widely implemented in primary schools, they tend to be abandoned when children enter secondary school. Research carried out this year by the Irish Heart Foundation on food provision in post-primary schools found that 51% of students have daily exposure to foods that are high in sugar, fat and salt and that these are widely available not only outside the school gates but also in school tuck shops and vending machines. There is no statutory requirement on schools to provide meals and hot food to students throughout the school day, although many schools have canteen facilities. Given the obesity epidemic we face, it is alarming that no national guidelines or standards are in place on the types of food and drinks available for children to buy. With no time for exercise and sugary, fatty foods surrounding children everywhere, it is little wonder that childhood obesity rates are high. If we continue to ignore this issue, our children’s health will only worsen.

Obesity is also becoming a problem of poverty. Convenient cheap foods that are high in calorific value and low in nutritional value are becoming the norm for lower income families. Why are convenient healthy foods the most expensive option? Anyone who visits a canteen or shop will see that convenient healthy foods are the most expensive option. The cost of healthy food is becoming a barrier to a healthy diet for families. For this reason, I support the introduction of a sugar tax. The money generated from such a tax should be used to fund projects such as family food initiatives. These are projects that help to improve the availability, affordability and accessibility of healthy food for low income groups at local level using a community development approach. The objective is to help families to achieve a healthier lifestyle.

The Minister raised the issue of free general practitioner care for children aged under six years and the two health checks available for this age cohort. While these are excellent initiatives, one of the issues people have raised with me is that they do not provide access to a dietitian or nutritionist in cases where a general practitioner encounters a problem. The schemes present an opportunity for general practitioners to engage with parents and provide them with nutritional information. As the Minister is aware, I fully support free GP care for children aged under six years.

An issue arises regarding choice architecture. The Department organised a seminar some weeks ago on what is known as the nudge policy and a number of simple steps that could be taken in this area. One need only visit a local shop, supermarket or canteen to observe how choice architecture is being used. It is easy for shoppers to grab the unhealthy option. While many of us agreed with Senator Byrne’s interesting comments on food, these issues do not always click for us. If Members are not getting this information easily, how much more difficult must it be for someone managing a family and in a rush to do so?

I thank the Minister for his attendance. My message is that we have policy blueprints and it is now time for action.

The Lancet

In July 2021, Jillian co-authored an article in the world-renowned medical journal “The Lancet”