Major campaign launched to tackle obesity across the island of Ireland shows how little steps can lead to a healthier furture

  • Health Service Executive, safefood and Health Promotion Agency, NI Call for reality check on obesity
  • Almost half of all parents prepare separate meals for their children. 1
  • New research reveals that only 3 out of 10 children getting the recommended amount of physical activity. 2

Monday, 16 June. the Health Service Executive and safefood in collaboration with the Health Promotion Agency, Northern Ireland launched a major campaign aimed at tackling the serious problem of obesity across the island of Ireland. The campaign, launched by Minister Mary Wallace, TD, Minister for Health Promotion and Food Safety, has been informed by new research into children’s eating habits and physical activity levels. The research also looked at parents’ attitudes towards eating and physical activity.

Entitled, ‘Little Steps Go A Long Way’, the campaign is a major awareness initiative involving television, radio advertising and digital activity designed to empower people, by showing that small changes to physical activity and food habits will have a big impact on health and on the levels of people who are either overweight, or obese.

Described as a “one of the most serious public health challenges” by the World Health Organization (WHO), the problem of obesity is at epidemic proportions among adults and children across the island of Ireland and looks set to continue growing at a rate of 1% every year. 3 In 2005, it was estimated that about 2,000 premature deaths in the Republic of Ireland were attributed to obesity and that these deaths could be costing the state as much as €4 billion a year. 4

The Health Service Executive, safefood and the Health Promotion Agency, NI have come together in a partnership approach with one common purpose - to provide one voice and a clear message to the public on the issue of obesity and show how little steps can lead to a healthier future.

Speaking at the campaign launch, Minister Mary Wallace, TD, Minister for Health Promotion and Food Safety said “The report of the obesity taskforce identified childhood obesity as a key threat to the future health of people on the island of Ireland. It called for real practical engagement by all sectors with this issue. This initiative represents true cooperation and avoidance of duplication of effort by the key agencies charged with promoting health, healthy diets, physical activity and lifestyles. I welcome this campaign, which through concerted action aims to tackle this important issue.”

“The problem of obesity is not going to be solved overnight. It will require a sustained effort over a long period. One of the big challenges we face is ensuring that people have the knowledge to realise that they or their children may be overweight, or obese. This campaign is designed to communicate that it is possible to work towards a long term, healthy weight with healthy, balanced eating habits and physical activity. Physical activity has a positive effect on people’s overall health and not just their body weight. It is now very clear that it is not about severe or fad diets nor is it about running a marathon, but little steps along the way to a healthier future,” said Catherine Murphy, Assistant National Director Population Health, Health Promotion, Health Service Executive. “In addressing what is a major societal issue; the Health Service Executive and safefood in collaboration with the Health Promotion Agency, Northern Ireland call on key stakeholders and agencies to join with them in supporting this campaign” she continued.

Research has shown that 11% of children aged 5 to 12 years of age are overweight and 11% are obese 5. However research 6 has demonstrated that the majority of mothers of overweight or obese children think that their children’s weight is fine for their age and those who may realise that there is a problem feel overwhelmed by it and think the challenge is too great to tackle. New research 7 released earlier today for the campaign revealed that 6 in 10 parents find it a struggle getting their children to eat healthy food however, reluctance to trying new foods can be overcome by exposing children to them more frequently.

Dr Cliodhna Foley Nolan, Director, Human Health and Nutrition, safefood said “There is evidence 8 to suggest that children’s eating habits mirror those of their parents and children and young people of normal weight parents are more likely to have a normal weight. Yet our research 9 has revealed that almost half of all parents prepare a separate meal for their children. Almost 20% of families 10 eat their meals in front of the TV more than four times a week and there is evidence 11 to suggest that eating meals in front of the TV is associated with poorer eating habits. Over half of all parents 12 believe that their children should eat all the food on their plate, but children are the best judges of when they are full. We would also encourage parents to be aware of portion sizes and the smaller appetites of their children. What is concerning is the fact that over 4 in 10 parents 13 reward their children for eating all the food on their plate and this only serves to exacerbate the problem”.

8 in 10 parents 14 feel that their children do the minimum of 60 minutes of physical activity per day, but the reality is quite different with only 3 in 10 children 15 across the island of Ireland meeting that recommendation, despite the fact that 85%16 of children enjoy physical activity. Children now spend almost as much time at sedentary activities such as watching TV and surfing the web, as they do engaging in any type of physical activity. Furthermore, while 7 in 10 parents 17 agree that their own activity levels and eating habits influence those of their children, just over 1 in 10 parents 18 spontaneously mention making changes to their own habits as a means of tackling potential obesity problems among their children.

An information booklet, ‘Little Steps Go a Long Way’ is also available on 1850 24 1850. Further information is available at

For further information please contact

Niamh Burdett
Tel: 01 6690030 / 086 608 6764

Editor's notes

  • Children aged 5-12 years - 11% overweight and 11% obese – based on n=596 children using the UK90 reference (IUNA, 2005).
  • Teenagers aged 13-17 years – 11% (11% males and 11% females) overweight and 8% (8% males and 6% females) obese – based on n=441 using the UK90 reference (O’Neill, J., Launch of the National Teens Food Survey, Dublin, 2008)
  • Adults aged 18-44 years - 39% (45% men and 33% women) overweight and 25% (obese 24% men and 26% women)  (SLAN, 2008) based on measured rather than self reported data among 1207 adults)   
  • A weight gain of 11-18 pounds doubles a person’s risk of developing type 2 diabetes, while a gain of 44 pounds quadruples a person risk (Ford et al., 1997).
  • A weight loss of 10% reduced the expected number of years of life with hypertension and diabetes by 1.5 and 0.8 respectively; reduced the lifetime risk of CHD by 12 to 38 cases per 1000 and increased life expectancy by 2 months (Oster et al., 1999).
  • Role Modelling
  • Most of the food that children and young people eat is prepared in the home – therefore shopping and food preparation and cooking in the home is very important
  • 89% all eating occasions for 5-12 year olds was at home. 85% calories consumed by 5-12 year olds comes from food prepared in their own homes and 6% calories in other peoples homes (Gibney and Burke, National Children’s Survey, 2005)
  • Children learn about food from the adults around them
  • Children of parents who like trying new foods are more likely to have a varied diet (Kiely M, Launch of National Children’s Survey, Dublin, 2005)
  • Children and young people of normal weight parents more likely to be normal weight (National Children’s Survey, 2005; National Teens Food Survey, 2008). Children aged 5-12 years who were classed as having unhealthy diets were more likely to watch more TV as were their parents (unpublished data from results of safefood and HSE funded analysis of the National Children’s Survey).

Children and teenager’s diets in Ireland are high in added sugars. Two of the main sources are sugary and/or fatty snacks and carbonated beverages

  • The mean percentage of energy (calories) obtained from added sugar recommended by World Health Organisation (WHO) is <10% (WHO, 2003)
  • In Ireland the mean percentage energy obtained from added sugars for children aged 5-12 years is 14.6% and for teenagers aged 13-17 years is 12.4% (Joyce et al. 2008)
  • Children and Young people are consuming a lot of fatty and/or sugary treat foods
  • 1/5th calories (18%) and fat (21%) in 5-12 year olds diets comes from cakes, biscuits, savoury snacks, chocolate and confectionary (McCarthy and Hannon, 2005)
  • Energy intake and fat and saturated fat intake increases with increasing intake of snack foods (IUNA, 2006)
  • Children and young people are consuming mostly beverages that contain sugar
  • Children aged 5-12 years are consuming about 2/3rds of a glass of carbonated beverages a day (137g/d) most of which is sugar sweetened (McCarthy and Hannon, Launch of National Children’s Survey, Dublin, 2005)


  • 60% of Irish adults do not participate in enough activity for health benefits and 22% of the population are completely inactive (Fahey et al., 2004).
  • It is widely believed that physically active children become physically active adults (McGuire et al., 2000)
  • Children (aged 4-7 years) who have active fathers or mothers are 1.5 times more likely to be active than children of inactive fathers or mothers. However, if BOTH parents are active, these children are 5.8 times more likely to be active, than children of two inactive parents.
  • Physical inactivity is associated with increased morbidity and mortality and also with an increased risk of a variety of illness and disease including cardiovascular heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers (Pate et al., 1995; Blair et al., 1989; Jakicic et al., 2001).

Regular physical activity is essential during childhood and adolescence

  • To maintain normal growth and development
  • To establish lifestyle physical activity patterns that will reduce risk factors for health problems in later life
  • Many diseases have their origins in younger age
  • Psychological Benefits:
  • – Development of positive coping strategies
  • – Increased enjoyment of social contacts
  • – Increased alertness, clear thinking
  • – Relief from feelings of burnout & pre-menstrual tension
  • – Positive changes in self-perception, confidence, mood, depression & anxiety
  • – Promotes well-being & improved sleep
  • Physical Benefits:
  • – Greater flexibility, endurance, improved circulation & functional capacity
  • – Maintain normal growth and development
  • – Reduces the risk of developing diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease or colon cancer
  • Social Benefits:
  • – Friends
  • – Social skills/Team-work


  1. HSE & safefood in collaboration with HPA, NI 2008
  2. An island of Ireland review of children’s eating habits and activity levels and their parents’ attitudes towards eating habits and physical activity, commissioned by safefood and the Health Service Executive and conducted by Millward Brown IMS in April and May 2008 amongst a nationally representative sample of 18-60 year old parents.
  3. Department of Health & Children 2005
  4. Department of Health & Children 2005
  5. (IUNA, 05)
  6. McGloin and Delaney, 2007 - National Children’s Survey
  7. HSE & safefood in collaboration with HPA, NI 2008
  8. Patrick and Nicklas 2005
  9. HSE & safefood in collaboration with HPA, NI 2008
  10. HSE & safefood in collaboration with HPA, NI 2008
  11. Patrick and Nicklas 2005
  12. HSE & safefood in collaboration with HPA, NI 2008
  13. HSE & safefood in collaboration with HPA, NI 2008
  14. HSE & safefood in collaboration with HPA, NI 2008
  15. HSE & safefood in collaboration with HPA, NI 2008
  16. HSE & safefood in collaboration with HPA, NI 2008
  17. HSE & safefood in collaboration with HPA, NI 2008
  18. HSE & safefood in collaboration with HPA, NI 2008