Dr Muireann Cullen from the Nutrition and Health Foundation (NHF) said the US’s obesity problem started about 30 years ago but warned that Ireland was quickly catching up.
“Two out of three adults in Ireland are either overweight or obese and we can see the problem in our children all the way back to preschool,” said Dr Cullen.
“The obesity problem in the US is absolutely shocking and Ireland is heading down the same road at a fierce pace. We need to put the brakes on and go into reverse.”
Dr Cullen said Irish people had lost the balance between diet and lifestyle and needed to get it back.
“We know from a very young age that we should be washing our teeth twice a day. Why isn’t the same message getting out in relation to healthy eating and physical activity,” she asked.
At the NHF-hosted conference in Dublin Dr Cullen stressed the need for all sections of society to work together to tackle the problem.
“No single group has the solution to the problem, we need to work together,” said Dr Cullen.
However, the foundation also wants the Government to take the lead in ensuring that health is an integral consideration in all of its policies.
“Clear goals need to be set, aimed for and achieved,” said Dr Cullen.
The Department of Health has created a new position — a ‘director of health and wellbeing’ and the NHF is hoping to work with the director in identifying key priorities in tackling obesity and changing behaviour.
“The issue has to be government-led because there has to be a key leader but we all have a role in supporting that and leading ourselves so the message is filtering down to communities and individuals,” said Dr Cullen.
The conference keynote speaker was Robin Schepper who worked as executive director of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move Campaign.
Ms Schepper said Ireland’s obesity epidemic would take years to solve.
She said there were many strategies on tackling the obesity problem but that Ireland would have to choose the ones best suited to the country’s needs.
She said Ireland would also have to invest in ways of making the healthy choice the easy choice.
However, spending on more playgrounds, sidewalks and bike paths could be offset by healthcare savings resulting from a reduction in the number of people with lifestyle-related diseases.
During an interview on RTÉ radio yesterday, Ms Schepper said the US’s first lady made a “huge impact” on the childhood obesity problem in America.