Letter to the Editor: Tipping the scales in favour of a healthy childhood

Letter to the Editor: Tipping the scales in favour of a healthy childhood

In 2019 do we cherish all our children equally? Young children in their school uniforms hungry and tired living in temporary accommodation, with limited access to nutritious food. If we can’t provide suitable housing for our children how are parents expected to feed them nutritious food? This can only add to the number of Irish children already presenting with diet-related problems. According to the Economic and Social Research Institute (ERSI), obesity and diabetes is on the rise among nine-year-olds in Ireland and across the EU.

The rise in childhood obesity in Ireland is a significant concern and needs to be dealt with it. Obesity at a young age does not just affect a child’s chance of having a high-quality childhood, but it also leads to life-long issues. Children who are obese will have excess non-lean body mass, known as adipose. Excess adipose is often associated with lifelong illnesses such as asthma and type two diabetes, which is on the rise in Ireland but can be managed through a healthy diet.

According to the figures in the Growing up in Ireland National Longitudinal Study of Children, Ireland has a higher number of obese children than northern European countries such as France.

If changes are not made to how we approach our children’s eating habits, diets, and levels of exercise, Ireland will be left with a significant health and financial crisis.

According to a written submission from the Health Service Executive to the joint committee on children and youth affairs published in 2018, the total lifetime costs of childhood obesity in the Republic of Ireland are estimated to be €4.6bn, with the direct healthcare-associated charges estimated at €1.7m. If body mass index (BMI) were reduced by 1%, the lifetime cost of childhood obesity would be reduced by €270m.

Children as young as 12 should not be presenting with type 2 diabetes, a disease that would have typically been seen in people over 40. Research by the World Obesity Federation predicts that by 2025, 241,000 school children in Ireland will be overweight or obese.

It is not down to the Government alone or parents to combat this situation but down to society as a whole if the changes that need to be made are to succeed. We need to introduce more substantial policies on the sale of sugary snacks and drinks to children. We need to monitor and reduce the number of television advertisements and online advertisements for sweet foods and beverages that children view. Children also need to be encouraged to play and exercise more, but the resources need to be put in place for this to be accessible to all children. Family food initiatives and more straightforward food labelling could be the starting steps in making changes. Community cooking programmes and community food initiatives should be used to build knowledge and skills that support healthy eating within communities.

From a healthcare perspective, more can be done. Monitoring of children’s weight could be put in place, and ensuring discussions about a child’s lifestyle and diet are part of all consultations would also be a substantial measure to help monitor children’s weight and patterns.

As stated, type two diabetes is being treated for more and more amongst the younger Irish population than in previous years. This disease is not only lifelong but also causes symptoms such as fatigue, numbness in the limbs, skin discolouration, and vision impairment. It is also associated with risk factors such as high blood cholesterol, high blood pressure, and the risk of heart attack and stroke.

Not only does obesity affect physical health, but it also takes a considerable toll on a child’s mental health and involvement in social situations. According to the Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care (2015), “children who are overweight or obese are more likely to be bullied and experience poor self-esteem and depression”. Children tend to suffer from severe bullying in association with obesity, and this can lead to developing social anxiety and self-harm as well as other psychiatric disorders, attendance in school and extracurricular activities also decreases.

While there have been policies to tackle obesity in the past years, such systems like Healthy Weight for Ireland: 2016-2025, which not only aims to tackle obesity in adults but also children, another plan is Tackling Childhood Obesity by the HSE, which focuses on preventing the likelihood of obesity in children. But this process of investing in healthy eating and exercise education in a child’s early years is not pushed enough in our country.

Based on the report ‘Adolescent obesity and related-behaviors’ by the World Health Organisation, obesity among young children is on the rise, and “One in 10 young people aged 5-17 are overweight or obese, with levels increasing rapidly”.

Children who are obese are most than likely to continue being obese into adulthood. These physical and mental issues can halt a child’s development in life, but these issues can be easily avoided. According to the CSO, the number of children biking or walking to school has been decreasing drastically, only 24.8% of children biked or walked to school in 2016 compared to 49.5% in 1986.

Combating this issue can lead to saving billions in healthcare costs, ensuring children can have the best standard of life and allows us to build a brighter future for children. We need to see more changes made as today’s generation of children have a lower life expectancy than their parents.

Julieanne Keane
Co Roscommon

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