Let's take on Childhood Obesity

Childhood obesity is a worry to me and something I think about in several contexts – as a parent, a grandparent, as Chief Executive of a health promotion body, and even as a professional with a background in finance and health economics.

At the launch this week of our new three year childhood obesity campaign, one of the many shocking statistics quoted resonated with me; a 14 year old today is on average, 4 stone heavier than his grandparent was at the same age.

As a parent, I’ve tried to instill in my children the habits of hard work and humour that I learned from my parents and I know it’s served them well. We all want children to have a bright future and we get them into all sorts of healthy habits, like brushing their teeth or crossing the road safely. But we’re not doing well with the habits around food and exercise. During the development of the campaign, we spoke a lot with parents across the island and their overwhelming feedback was they wanted a solutions-based approach. We’ve concentrated on that practicality in the campaign so whether it’s replacing sugary drinks with water, being realistic about treat foods or reducing portion sizes, our hope is that parents will introduce their children to these new habits. Habits that will last a lifetime.

girl eating a small bowl of pastaMany factors have influenced our habits and lifestyles through generations. We enjoy a greater variety and abundance of foods to choose from than ever before. We have increased convenience, competition and choice when food shopping. We’ve moved from a period of limited food availability and under consumption to 24/7 food and overconsumption. And while many of us will have grown up with the ‘finish everything on the plate’ advice of our parents, we’ve lost sight of the role food plays in our lives. Children need child-sized portions, not adult ones and we’re encouraging parents to reassess this and to give age-appropriate amounts of food.

We are also living through a period of remarkable growth and development in digital, personal communications. When I look back at my childhood, an apple or blackberry were just that - a type of fruit. Today, their modern mobile namesakes can access any information at the swipe of a finger and can record video and share it instantly with friends in other countries, something my parents would probably have considered the stuff of science fiction. But with the recent shocking finding that one third of our preschool-aged children now have some form of TV or screen in their bedroom, maybe it’s time we switched off the screens some more, and switched on their imaginations and active minds in other ways.

Aside from the obvious health benefits of reducing the risk of our children growing up developing weight-related conditions like heart disease, type 2 Diabetes and even some cancers, taking on childhood obesity also makes good economic and financial sense. A recent safefood report estimated the cost of adult obesity on the island of Ireland was in excess of €1 billion a year in direct health treatment costs and indirect costs caused by illness and lost productivity. If current trends continue, almost half the adults living in Ireland will be obese by 2030 and the financial impact of that scenario on our health service cannot be underestimated.

two girls dancing insidePublic health initiatives like information and awareness campaigns and early interventions have proven to be sustainable, effective and can exert a positive influence over the issue at hand. They can also create a ‘multiplier effect’ in society – where behaviour change among one group can empower others to do the same. Through our sponsorship of ‘Operation Transformation’, we’ve witnessed how this support can motivate entire communities to make long-term, positive changes.

Building partnerships and encouraging a joined-up approach also creates an environment where changes are easier to make. This campaign was developed in partnership with the HSE and Healthy Ireland framework in the Republic of Ireland, and the Fitter Futures for All Implementation Plan in Northern Ireland. The food and retail industry can play their part and we are open to exploring how we can work more effectively with them.

Our new campaign is about supporting parents in making small changes in their everyday lifestyle habits to make a big difference to the health and wellbeing of their children, now and for the future. Halting or even slowing down the overweight and obesity trends in childhood of the last 20 years won’t be easy. But every journey begins with a first step. And working together, in partnership, we can take on childhood obesity, one small step at a time.

Posted: 25/10/2013 14:21:00 by Martin Higgins
Filed under: Campaigns, Childhood obesity, Drinks, Portion sizes, Treats

About Me

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Martin Higgins
As Chief Executive Officer (since retired), Martin Higgins led safefood since its inception in December 1999. His knowledge of the health and food safety sectors helped to establish safefood as one of the island's primary sources of information and advice for consumers on food issues.