327,000 children overweight as Irish obesity crisis looms

UP TO 327,000 children are either obese or overweight and experts have warned Ireland is heading for a US-style epidemic where 33% of children have weight problems.

According to Dr Donal O’Shea, a consultant endocrinologist and the director of the weight management Clinic at St Columcille’s Hospital, 20% of Irish children are obese or overweight.

Dr O’Shea said the figure will be much higher if the Government does not act.

The head of the Sports Council, John Treacy, has called for a dedicated cross-departmental government group to try and tackle the issue.

The former Olympic athlete, who chaired the National Taskforce on Obesity in 2006, said that while it might prove difficult, the Government could put pressure on the food and drinks industry to package food for young people differently and to reduce portion sizes.

“The Government needs to get involved and look at closely at these things,” he said. “We know kids are more active than they ever were and there are a lot of good things happening but we also know they are eating too much and drinking a lot of fizzy drinks or energy drinks, which have a lot of calories.”

Dr O’Shea said we are beginning to see a “population separation” where the overweight are getting heavier and those at a normal weight are staying at that weight.

He said the clinical consequences of obesity include an increased risk of type-two diabetes, a greater risk of most cancers and worsening of asthma.

He said the problems will emerge in adulthood but an overweight child is twice as likely to grow up to be an overweight adult.

“In childhood, the main issues are around self-esteem and the worsening of things like childhood asthma and skin problems,” he said.

“The problem is getting worse and, if you look to US, 33% of children are obese or overweight, and that is where Ireland is headed something is not done.”

Dr O’Shea said although it is a challenge to define childhood obesity, statistics from both official and university surveys found that 20% of the Irish child population is either obese or overweight.

In 2005, the Report of the National Taskforce on Obesity recommended banning vending machines in primary schools, launching an education and training programme for health professionals, introducing guidelines for food labelling, examining fiscal policy and its impact on obesity, and introducing guidelines for the detection and treatment of obesity.

Mr Treacy said that while progress had been made, it was up to the Government to keep the issue at the forefront of the public consciousness.

“All government departments need to be addressing this issue and we need to get the message out there,” said Mr Treacy, who added that the problem tended to be worse in disadvantaged communities.

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