Children in disadvantaged communities are becoming overweight and obese as they get older, despite the problem levelling off in the wider childhood population.
The worrying trend has emerged from the latest weight study of the country’s primary pupils, which shows that at least one in five pupils in fourth and sixth classes are overweight or obese.
More than 4,900 children had their weight, height, and body mass index measured in 2015 by the National Nutrition Surveillance Centre at University College Dublin. Their report, published in conjunction with the HSE, shows the results of the fourth such analysis since 2008 as part of the Childhood Obesity Surveillance Initiative.
While a range of healthy eating, active schools, and awareness initiatives appear to have had some effect, an expert in the battle against the problem said there is still a long way to go.
Sarah O’Brien, HSE national lead for the Healthy Eating Active Living programme, said the 20% of young people who are overweight or obese still carry excess weight that will damage their health now and into the future.
The study shows that over one in seven (16.9%) first-class pupils, typically aged six or seven, are overweight or obese. The equivalent figures for those aged nine or ten (fourth class) and 11 or 12 (sixth class) are 20.2% and 20.6%, respectively.
In line with international trends, the figures mask significant differences between pupils at schools in the Department of Education’s DEIS disadvantage support programme and those in other schools.
The HSE pointed out that the gap becomes wider as children grow older. The proportions of overweight and obese children at Deis and other schools, respectively, are:
Last year’s Government plan to tackle obesity set a short-term target for cuts to levels of excess weight in children, and to reduce the gap in obesity levels between the highest and lowest socio-economic groups by 10%.
Families of the children who took part in the study completed surveys about socioeconomic status, diet, and physical activity.
Ms O’Brien said it is difficult to pinpoint any lifestyle factors from the analysis.
“We need to look at this in context of what’s happening in our environment as a whole, where we have a lot of marketing of convenience foods, food with high sugar and fat, sugary, and sweetened drinks,” she said.
She said access and affordability of healthy food options are issues for some communities, and it is sometimes cheaper to pick up sweet and fatty items, which are prominently placed in supermarkets, than healthier options like fruit.
“In a local supermarket, for example, the first thing you might see going in the door is a packet of four jam doughnuts for €1. But to buy an apple probably costs nearly the same in the same store,” said Ms O’Brien.
Free drinking water in schools proposed
One step to get children to healthier weights would be to ensure access to free drinking water in schools.
This is among the recommendations of the HSE’s Healthy Weight for Ireland: Obesity Policy and Action Plan, along with the recommendation for a sugar tax which the Government is set to introduce next year.
HSE’s Healthy Eating, Active Living programme lead, Sarah O’Brien, said increasing access to free drinking water would require Department of Education investment but would be a valuable spend.
“It’s part of that issue around how money brought in from those fiscal measures [like sugar tax] can be targeted,” she said.
“From a health and well-being perspective, children need to be hydrated during the day. We want them to be more active during the day, so it’s important that they have ready access to drinking water.”
The HSE says key habits must be developed to help children keep or achieve a healthy weight.
As well as replacing sugary drinks with water, the main ones are to:
Interventions that appeal as much to girls are also needed, as the Childhood Obesity Surveillance studies show they are significantly more likely to be overweight or obese than boys.
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