When Susie Birney started gaining weight as she hit puberty, she was convinced she had a food disorder.
Over the years, as she gained more weight, she listened to her peers and tried eating less and exercising more.
“I was always very active, so this ‘eat less, move more’ didn’t make sense in my life,” she said.
“I fixated too much on trying to fix the food disorder so every time that I went on a new diet it was like you felt a failure when it didn’t work, so you blamed yourself. The stigma was pretty tough.”
Society continues to perceive obesity as a case of personal responsibility, she said, rather than a disease that can often be outside of a person’s control.
Ms Birney formed a support group 10 years ago for people living with obesity.
“You can’t do it alone,” she said.
“Doing it alone leaves you with a sense of failure all the time. Now, looking back on it, I didn’t know the link between obesity and polycystic ovarian syndrome.”
Ms Birney is now the executive director of the newly formed Irish Coalition for People Living with Obesity (ICPO). The group aims to “support, educate and raise awareness that obesity is a complex chronic disease where the body’s ability to regulate weight is disrupted”.
The patient-led group has been working with the HSE and the ERSI on developing Ireland’s national strategy around obesity and are advocates for community supports for people with obesity.
Implementation of the new model of care will improve access for 60% of the Irish population who are living with obesity, the group said, granting access to community weight management programmes, specialist medical management teams, and bariatric surgery services.
Professor Donal O’Shea, HSE clinical lead for obesity, said: “The support that ICPO has given to the obesity programme over the last few years has been critical to the progress we have made — and I expect its impact is only going to grow."
Ms Birney said: “If you keep trying to fight something that is an ongoing disease that you’re likely to have for the rest of your life then you’re always failing, always losing.
“Whereas if you live with it and cope and adapt, that’s much more manageable."