Why is Ireland on course to be the fattest nation in Europe?

We are doing something wrong in this country as we are on course to be the fattest nation in Europe in 15 years. But what is it asks Andrea Mara

WE’VE all seen the headlines — Ireland is on track to be the most obese nation in Europe by 2030. But why Ireland? What are we doing here that’s so different to other European countries?

Is it our well-documented love of alcohol? Our public health initiatives? Our physical environment? Our eating habits? Or sheer bad luck?

Findings presented at the European Congress on Obesity in May forecast that by 2030, 58% of Irish men would be obese, putting us at the top of the table. The UK was fourth, at 33%.

It seems particularly remarkable that our outcomes would differ so significantly from the UK — the two countries have similar lifestyles and eating habits, as well as access to the same products in the same supermarkets.

To find out what exactly we’re doing differently to everyone else, we spoke to experts in the field.

“There are some differences in their public health approaches in the UK,” explains Cathy Breen, Senior Dietitian in The Weight Management Service, St Columcilles Hospital. “For example they got off the blocks earlier with public health guidelines for obesity management. They also have greater availability of childhood obesity interventions. We’re only starting to get there in Ireland, with the Healthy Ireland initiative.”

But overall, as you’d expect, we are broadly similar to the UK. “The report was based on available data,” says Breen. “I think other data sets have shown roughly similar stats across the UK and Ireland, with approximately 60% overweight and 25-28% obese, which isn’t surprising when we have many similarities.”

Professor Ivan Perry, from the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health in UCC agrees. “Ireland and the UK are indeed similar, and the report is based on recent trends — it does make certain assumptions, and some country had to come out on top. We need to be careful not to over interpret the findings. It’s data based on projections. What’s clear is that we are in a group of nations with high levels of overweight and obesity in children and adults.”

Why is Ireland on course to be the fattest nation in Europe?

Professor Ivan Perry, Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, UCC in the English

Market, Cork. Photo: Tomas Tyner, UCC

So perhaps we need to look at countries that come out relatively well in general, such as the Netherlands. What are they doing differently?

“Holland has an environment conducive to physical activity. It’s a flat country, cycling is easy,” says Professor Perry. “If we’re tackling obesity, it’s not enough to lecture people about diet and exercise. We need to change our approach to the production and marketing of food, and advertising to children. We need to look at walking and cycling and public transport. We need to change the environment.”

He mentions Mexico, where a sugar-tax was introduced in January 2014. “Putting a tax on sweetened drinks is a no brainer. It’s a low risk measure with a high potential return,” says Professor Perry. “There is evidence from Mexico that shows it will reduce consumption of sweetened drinks, bringing positive health benefits.”

Lack of exercise is a problem here. “Activity is definitely a big factor,” says Aveen Bannon, dietitian and founder of Dublin Nutrition Centre. “If PE was a daily subject in school, children would have a chance of achieving their 60 minutes per day of physical activity. I know in central European countries like the Netherlands and France, daily exercise is a norm. In Ireland it’s not.” Our relationship with alcohol and binge drinking is well known — it’s not a huge leap to assume a link with weight problems.

“Yes I think it’s fair to say that alcohol is a contributing factor,” says Cathy Breen.

“Anecdotally here in the clinic I see it impacting in two ways. Firstly, we have patients who have a glass or two of wine to de-stress in the evenings — the extra 200-300 calories from this adds up over the week and can make weight loss more difficult. Secondly, some patients will do really well food-wise all week but then binge drink at the weekends — at approximately 200 calories per pint of beer, it’s easy to undo a lot of hard work put in earlier in the week.”

Breastfeeding sets us apart too. According to the latest Growing Up in Ireland report, our breastfeeding rates are among the lowest in the world.

“We know that breastfeeding rates are very poor in Ireland compared to other European countries,” says Aveen Bannon, “Breastfeeding reduces the risk of obesity in children.”

We’re also a very dairy-oriented country. “We have a fairly high intake of full-fat dairy products,” says Professor Perry. “We emphasise the value of calcium in milk and cheese for bone health, but other countries with lower intake of dairy products have bone health comparable to ours.” So while it’s clear that this is just one report, and not one that should be over- interpreted, we are certainly in a group of countries with an obesity problem, and we have a number of underlying factors that contribute to the issue.

“We need to move back from highly processed foods to wholefoods to deal with this obesity epidemic,” warns Professor Perry. “We’ve created an environment saturated with food, especially food which is high in calories per serving. There’s food in every garage. We cannot even go for a haircut now without an offer of tea and biscuits.

Why is Ireland on course to be the fattest nation in Europe?

Fionnuala Zinnecker who lives in Germany says going the gym regularly is normal there.

We are packing in calories at every conceivable opportunity.” Fionnuala Zinnecker is an Irish mother of three living in Germany who blogs at ThreeSonsLater — I asked her about German lifestyle and attitudes to food:

“The one major difference I find here is sport. Being a member of a sports club or a gym is a big part of people’s lives in Germany. People walk and cycle a lot too, regardless of the weather. Sundays are spent working in the garden, going on cycling trips, hiking in the woods, playing football.

“School children will mostly have an extra-curricular sport at least once a week from the age of three, like dancing or athletics. By five or six they have moved on to swimming, football, tennis, or karate. There is a national programme to promote walking to school. So they are brought up with this lifestyle. It’s what you do as a German.

“By and large the German diet is still very much based on a bread or cereal breakfast, a warm meal in the middle of the day, often coffee and cake mid-afternoon, and an evening meal of bread, cheese, cold meats and salad.

“I think that the main meal in the middle of the day and the focus on sport are why the Germans are not as high on the obesity scale as the Irish.”

How to avoid obesity in your family:

Small changes that make a big difference

If you think your child is overweight, voice concerns with them on health reasons, not appearance.

Familiarise yourself with what a serving size is — see Safefood for visual guidelines.

Ensure that there’s colour at every meal — fruit with breakfast, and vegetables or salad with lunch and dinner.

Encourage activity as a family — for health reasons, not specifically weight loss reasons.

Ensure everyone in the family drinks enough water everyday. Water is the forgotten nutrient and often we mistake thirst for hunger.

Don’t be afraid to seek help. Too often parents feel guilty if a child is overweight.

Find support from a dietitian who will help you plan a healthy diet that fits in with your routine. Steer clear of anything that promises a quick fix — healthy eating is for long-term health.

Eat regularly throughout the day — every three to four hours.

There’s no such thing as a good or bad food… only a good or bad diet!

(Source: Dietitian, Aveen Bannon)


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