The idea was put forward by obesity expert Dr Cathal McCrory who told the Oireachtas Committee on Children and Youth Affairs that his research has shown that parents’ perceptions of their child’s weight was at odds with the reality of their actual situation.
Dr McCrory, a Senior Research Fellow at Trinity College, has published his research on obesity using the Growing Up in Ireland study of a large nationally representative sample of children over a number of years.
“Obesity is considered to have reached epidemic proportions in both adult and child populations. According to figures provided by Growing Up in Ireland, 19% of children aged three years are overweight and 6% are obese,” he said.
“Worryingly, our research shows that 54% of parents of overweight children and 20% of parents of obese children in the Growing Up in Ireland childhood cohort reported that they are ‘about the right’ weight for their height,” he warned Oireachtas members.
He said a co-ordinated action including a number of government departments, parents, schools, community based-organisations, and healthcare providers will be required to tackle the many factors contributing to Ireland’s obesity problem.
“Ireland is on target to be the fattest country in Europe by 2030 according to the World Health Organisation. We need to act urgently to address this problem,” he warned.
Among his recommendations is the implementation of a national screening programme for BMI and waist circumference in school-age children.
He said his research has shown how children in Portugal have their weight assessed on every GP visit, but said he does not think such a system will work here.
“I spoke to GPs who gave me pretty candid feedback,” Dr McCrory told the committee. “A lot of them told me they’re too busy to do this in their clinics.
“The second thing is they find it difficult to challenge parents about the weight of their children because there’s a fear of stigmatisation. People are fearful of the word obese, to be told a child is obese, or having to relay that information to the parents is sometimes quite tricky.
“I think the best way to achieve this is an annual assessment done through the schools as part of a public health visit,” he said.
Dr McCrory said school assessments would ensure that fewer children miss having their weight measures, as some children would attend their GP less frequently than others, or not at all.
Dr McCrory also said that childhood overweight and obesity is more heavily concentrated in lower socio-economic status (SES) households.
He said while the Growing Up In Ireland study has shown that while babies born in such households weigh less at birth compared to babies born to parents from professional social class backgrounds, they tend to gain weight at a faster rate.
He also cited Ireland’s low breastfeeding rate as a problem, given that it has been shown to be protective against the development of obesity.
“Ireland has the lowest breastfeeding rate in Europe with initiation rates just above 50%. Women from lower SES backgrounds are 80% less likely to breastfeed.
“Measures to increase rates of breastfeeding should be a national priority, and resources allocated to increase breastfeeding rates among more disadvantaged groups,” he said.