A fifth of Irish five-year-olds are overweight or obese, a new study has revealed.
Weight problems in young children have been linked to the amount of time they spend in front of the television, computers and other electronic devices.
Children in better-off families are less likely to be overweight or obese, it found.
The latest report from the Growing Up in Ireland study also shows that a quarter of families with a five-year-old child are having difficulty – sometimes great difficulty – in making ends meet.
The number struggling with financial hardship has doubled over the past five years, it found.
Children’s Minister Frances Fitzgerald said the findings confirm a worrying reality about the diet and well-being of young children in Ireland.
“The findings further highlight the range of differences among Irish children in terms of social advantage,” she said.
Growing Up in Ireland is a Government-funded study tracking the development of two large groups of children.
The research being led by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) and Trinity College Dublin involved in-depth interviews with families of five-year-olds between March and September this year.
The latest findings show more than twice as many five-year-olds from poorer or disadvantaged backgrounds spend three hours or more a day in front of a TV, smartphone, computer or other device, then better off children.
Higher levels of so-called screen-time are associated with poorer eating habits, as children tend to eat more crisps, biscuits and other snacks, the study found.
Some 15% of five-year-olds were found to be overweight, with a further 5% described as obese. Girls were more likely than boys to be overweight.
The study shows the economic downturn has hit families with young children on a number of levels, including through wage cuts.
More than four out of 10 families said they couldn’t afford or had to cut back on basics, with 17% having fallen into arrears with utility bills and 14% behind on their mortgage repayments or rent.
A quarter of families with a five-year-old said they were making ends meet with great difficulty or with difficulty – up from 12% when the children were nine months old.
However, the study shows the vast majority (98%) of five-year-olds are in good health.
The remaining 2% were described by their mother as sometimes quite ill or almost always unwell.
Professor James Williams, of the ESRI, who heads up the Growing Up in Ireland project, said the latest findings shed light on the changing circumstances of children.
“Five-year-olds appear to be adjusting well to the new challenges they face as they make the transition to school,” he said.
“Although in overall terms their health is very good, overweight and obesity continue to be a major cause of concern at five years of age.
“The effects of the economic downturn and the financial and other stresses which it imposes on families are also very evident from the figures”.