Sports-mad nation faces obesity crisis - Food labelling

AS Europe plummets towards a crisis of obesity, it should come as no surprise, especially following a series of alarming reports showing how explosive the scenario is here, that Irish people are hell-bent on becoming the fattest in the EU. Yet, considering what a sports-mad country this is, it is surprising and an apparent contradiction.

This nation’s abiding interest in sport was seen on Sunday when a crowd of over 80,000 fans flocked to Croke Park for the football clash between Mayo and Dublin. But, sadly, it seems our sporting image exists in name only. Fast becoming a nation of couch potatoes, sitting and watching a game, preferably with a pint or a snack in hand, is what we do best.

Obesity is now turning out to be such a colossal problem in Ireland that it has the potential to completely overwhelm the country’s heath service, already over-stretched, under-staffed and underfunded as it is. The gravity of the obesity crisis was underlined earlier this year by a Europe-wide report from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and it is worth recalling the scary statistics for this country which showed the proportion of obese women in the Republic, growing from 23% to 57%, an alarming increase by any standard.

No doubt the picture this depicts would have de Valera spinning in his grave — all the more so if he knew that instead of his idealised image of comely maidens dancing at the crossroads in the Ireland he dreamed of, the fattest women in Europe would be gallumping through his nightmares.

And when it came to a question of obesity, the Irish male is every bit as bad. Proportionately, according to WHO data, they increased from 26% to 48%, while those for overweight men jumped from 74% to 89%.

The really frightening aspect of this crisis according to WHO experts is that by 2030, Europe will face an obesity crisis of “enormous proportions” — no pun intended. By then, some 89% of Irish men will be obese and overweight while around 85% of women in this country will be so fat as to fall into the obese category. Meanwhile, the proportion of obese and overweight men in Ireland is projected to rise to 89% by 2030, with a corresponding 85% of women falling into this category.

Perhaps the most alarming point of all is the lack of protection for Irish children. They are particularly vulnerable to the slick advertisements used by a multi-billion euro and ruthless global food industry to sell child-oriented products laden with sugar or salt, both potential killers in the long run, and worryingly capable of outweighing the fitness and health benefits of young people playing sports at school. Invariably, such companies are more interested in creating profits than in caring for children or protecting their health.

The real issue at stake here is the chilling success of the food industry in lobbying governments so as to convince them not to introduce a mandatory ‘traffic light’ system whereby potentially hazardous levels of, let us say, sugar would be highlighted in red, and so on down through the orange and green colours of street traffic lights. Clearly defined labelling is vital.

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