Duncan Casey: Time to tackle our obesity crisis

It is no secret Ireland is thundering towards the title of “heaviest in Europe”. Obesity levels are spiralling out of control and have been for some time, with one quarter of our adults now in the category.

Our children are not faring any better — a quarter are overweight or obese. It is predicted we will have the second highest obesity rates on the continent by 2025.

It is widely accepted the problem is an urgent one. Very few will disagree with the idea something needs to be done. The thing is, I’m 25 years old. I can recall hearing a discussion about this in school at 15 years of age. Rather than improvements, we have seen a drastic escalation of the problem in the last decade.

At the rate things usually change in this country, I’m not entirely optimistic about the next 10 years either.

What do we do then? We can start by being harder on ourselves. Irish people are great at making excuses. We have an extraordinary capacity to avoid things we don’t like. Our ability to procrastinate is second to none. When it comes to healthy eating, we are no different.

In my early days as a student, my diet, though not terrible, left a lot to be desired. I probably went two and a half years without cooking myself a vegetable and the fruit bowl was rarely full.

Tinned tuna or mackerel was my meal of choice, usually combined with spaghetti or noodles and maybe some cottage cheese to moisten it up. I know, you can’t wait to get home and whip up some of your own (it actually tastes alright).

I used to come down with nasty cases of the vomiting bug and flu every now and again. Stupidly, I failed to make the connection between my poor diet and my weak immune system.

There were plenty of excuses at the time. I had no interest in spending hours preparing elaborate meals, I wanted something quick and convenient. I was eating more than enough carbs and protein and anything else was unnecessary. How as a student could I afford to eat healthy meals?

People argue it is too expensive to provide real, healthy food for themselves and their children. Research supports this claim. A 2014 study by Cambridge University found in 2012, healthy food cost three times more than unhealthy alternatives.

While it isn’t cheap to eat well, the research is misleading. A sirloin steak might be three times as expensive as a box of chicken nuggets but to say it is not possible to eat healthily on a budget is simply untrue. Take a standard enough Irish meal — chicken, mashed potato and spinach. This, or a slight variation of it, is a healthy, nutritious choice.

The cost breakdown for a family of two adults and two children would be as follows:

At your local butcher, you can probably get ten chicken breasts for €10. One chicken breast for each person will mean €4 for the chicken. In Tesco, two kilos of Irish potatoes will cost you €2. Two generous scoops of mash will be about 150 grams, with the children needing a bit less at 100g. That brings the total to 500 grams or 50c. Across the aisle, a 260 gram bag of spinach will set you back €1.75. It is quite a lot but you can use the whole thing.

That brings the cost of a healthy, tasty, nutritious meal for two adults and two children to €6.25. That’s €1.56 per person. This is not unaffordable. If it sounds a bit bland, you could buy a block of unsalted Connacht Gold butter for €1.69. It will last for two or three weeks.

The existence of food poverty cannot be denied for one minute. That is a very real and very different issue to voluntarily making bad choices. The strain placed on food banks around the country in recent years is evidence of this.

For example, since opening in 2014, the Mid West Simon food bank in Limerick has been inundated with people who have nowhere else to turn — 200 people avail of the food bank each week. It is tragic that such services are so desperately needed in our country. Many people, however, are in a position to eat in a healthy manner but choose not to.

Education is critical to changing habits. Any incentive in this area is to be welcomed but again, we can be harder on ourselves.

It is understandable somebody does not realise that the sugar content of a glass of orange juice is almost the same as a glass of coke (24g versus 27g), or that cous cous is a less healthy choice than wholemeal pasta due to its GI content. It is difficult to accept that people really believe Coco Pops are as nutritious as porridge oats or that a banana isn’t a better choice than a bar of chocolate.

Anything can be enjoyed every now and again. Bad habits are hard to break but a big effort has to be made. Unless we get real and stop making excuses, a staggering 85% of Irish people will be either overweight or obese by 2030. That should frighten us all.

At the rate things usually change in this country, I’m not entirely optimistic about the next 10 years either


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