Child Obesity: An Epidemic

There was a time when it was a rarity to see an overweight child. I’m not sure if it was because there weren’t as many processed foods in the nineties, whether children were running around outside more instead of obsessively playing video games inside or if parents have just started taking less interest in whether or not their child is healthy or not. Either way, there is a child obesity epidemic in Ireland today with more and more children tipping the scales at the wrong end. It has recently emerged that we now have one of the worst child obesity rates in Northern Europe.

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Obesity occurs when you take in more calories that you can burn through exercise and normal daily activities. The body stores these excess calories as fat, to the point where it could seriously endanger health.

Being overweight as a child has, first and foremost, serious ramifications to physical and psychological wellbeing. Not only is there a risk of bullying, poor self-esteem and depression but also detrimental illnesses just lying in wait to take hold when the child becomes an adolescent, and eventually, an obese adult. One of the most likely diseases is type-2 diabetes which is a serious condition that affects many who are obese or who were obese as children. Other worrying problems include early onset arthritis and depression.

One in ten 5 – 12 year olds are overweight and a further one in ten is obese. In total, 22% of 5 – 12 year olds are overweight or obese. Also, in Irish teenagers, there has been a significant increase in teenage obesity since 1990 with an eight-fold increase in males (8%) and a two-fold increase in females (6%). It’s what I like to call a perfect storm; it’s not just a case of otherwise healthy children getting fatter, it’s also a problem because the already heavy children are getting even heavier.

In Ireland today, 300,000 Irish children are obese and this number increases by 10,000 annually. There has been a lot of talk in the past few years of a fat tax levy being implemented in Ireland. It will be introduced in the next year and it involves an increase in the price on foods with a high level of saturated fat. This means that the myth of healthy products being too expensive will be turned on its head and fatty foods will become the more costly option; it’s about time something like this happened because people may finally decide to eat healthier.

For most people, it’s very easy to point fingers. It seems that unless a child has an underlying medical condition that causes their weight gain, the main cause for children being overweight or obese is down to parents. Whether people like it or not, they are the problem here because they are the ones who feed their kids and decide how much they are getting. You don’t see a child walking into a chipper and ordering lunch for themselves; of course not, they come home from school and are given convenient and unhealthy food in adult portions and are not encouraged to participate in any exercise. These children are not being fed real nutritious food like fruit and vegetables and thus the problem persists.

It’s not a surprise; most of these parents have conditioned their children from a young age to refuse healthy food because they are given unhealthy options instead. So if parents become aware that their child is obese and want to change the child’s eating habits, it doesn’t work because the child is not used to the healthy food. They reject it and the parents feel they should eat something rather than nothing and their resolve collapses.

“As a GP, I’ve seen a lot of obese children and more so over the last ten years,” said Dr. Colette McGrory. “This has become a serious epidemic and some parents don’t realise that their children are obese. They are so used to seeing their children growing gradually and just don’t realise. Most parents themselves are also obese so they don’t see their child’s wait gain as being abnormal.

“There should be a public health campaign that highlights the dangers of childhood obesity. This should be done in terms of the impact on children at the time and the ramifications in later life. The risks are widely unknown to the public in relation to childhood obesity in Ireland, as it had not been a concern before now. I also don’t think there should be advertisements associating sporting activities with the likes of fast food chains and fizzy drinks, for instance at the Olympics which was sponsored by McDonalds and Coca Cola,” she concluded.

This is very true as a huge part of the problem is that advertisements for fast food are everywhere; on the TV, the sides of buses and promotions in shop windows when walking down the street to name a few. Children, especially, are susceptible to this brainwashing. It doesn’t help that outlets such as McDonalds offer toys with the meals as it attracts children. This only results in pestering their parents who are stressed enough to give in.

It’s very sad that the developed world is producing fatter and fatter children despite scientific revelations of what we shouldn’t be eating, and then in contrast in developing parts of the world, there are children so thin that they are dying at a very young age. There is an extreme at both ends of the scale and it’s mind blowing to think that we have still not found a balance.

However there are ways to stop an overweight child becoming an overweight or possibly obese adult.  These need to be implemented in early childhood to prevent long-lasting damage psychologically and physically. The cure is common sense: eating healthier, smaller portions and regular exercise.

Dietician Karen Doherty said, “What with the recession, families don’t have the same income they used to. The money for their total budget has been reduced. Families are out for the best value for money and processed foods are cheaper in a lot of aspects. Speaking from personal experience, they know what is healthy and unhealthy, but are influenced by kids and the media.”

The first step is to get children outside playing and participating in sports instead of lounging around like a couch potato watching TV. Even if it is 20 minutes a day, once a child is used to being outdoors a routine can be created by parents to ensure that they get as much time running around as possible. Not only will it be good for children, it will also be good for parents who tend to have the bad eating habits that they pass onto their children.

Whether this problem is going to be acknowledged by people and combated or not remains to be seen, but the fact remains that this is not going to go away without people taking a hands-on approach to the problem staring them in the face.

After all, we’re already a country famed for being heavy drinkers; we don’t want to make that stereotype literal.

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