“We are immune to the stark statistics, and we almost see the situation as inevitable and insoluble,” said Safefood’s director of human health and nutrition, Dr Cliodhna Foley-Nolan.
Childhood obesity had become “a very stubborn health issue,” she told a meeting of the Oireachtas Committee on Children and Youth Affairs, yesterday.
Dr Foley-Nolan pointed out that over the last 50 years, 14-year-old boys had become 14kgs heavier (more than two stone).
While people might have been undernourished in 1950, they were now over-nourished, to a point that was unhealthy.
Dr Foley-Nolan said that many primary schools had ‘no-running’ policies, no fridges for food storage, no water fountains, and that lunch-eating time interfered with play time.
And secondary schools were being targeted by nearby outlets with unhealthy meal deals.
“If obesity was any other disease or condition, we would be more alarmed than we are,” said Dr Foley-Nolan.
“Obesity is a disease, but it does not require urgent treatment. That is why we have found ourselves in this situation.”
Safefood’s director of marketing and communications, Dr Aileen McGloin, said parents did not know how much screen time was healthy for their children.
She told Labour’s Sean Sherlock that screen time had emerged in Safefood research as a top concern for parents.
Parents felt ‘utterly disempowered” when it came to managing their children’s smartphone or computer usage, because there was no clear guidance, said Dr McGloin.
However, parents needed to lead by example, if they wanted to reduce the time their children spent looking at screens, she said.
“If you want to change the behaviour in the child, you need to start with yourself, and for a parent to face up to that is quite difficult,” she said.
“Whether we are talking about the different types of food we eat or the amount of screen time, we have to take an all-family approach.”
Mr Sherlock said the committee had heard that technology was having a “massively negative effect” on children’s activity levels.
Chief executive of Sport Ireland, John Treacy, said they were acutely aware of the impact that smartphones, and other digital devices, were having on children.
Mr Treacy said all sports clubs around the country wanted to keep children involved, even those children who were not competitive.
“We don’t want them (the children) to be put off by going into highly competitive environments. But the children, by their very nature, will become competitive anyway,” he said.
“Part of what we are doing is highlighting to the clubs right around the country that competitiveness will come from within, but not all children want to be competitive.”
He said volunteers and coaches were ensuring that children who were not very competitive felt welcomed and valued and were not left sitting on the sideline all the time.
Dr Foley-Nolan said children who were overweight did not have the same energy levels, so it was difficult for them to become involved in team-based activities.
“We need to work around that, when trying to get those children involved in sport. They are already disadvantaged and are embarrassed about their appearance.”