Press Release

Young people fail to react to obesity issue

Homer Simpson cited as unhealthy role model

Research undertaken by the Health Promotion Unit has shown that young people are well informed and very knowledgeable about the causes and health outcomes of overweight and obesity but fail to react to the issue and, when given the option, make unhealthy food choices.

The focus group studies, conducted by Lansdowne Market Research and carried out with young people aged 11-14, also demonstrated an alarming disparity in activity levels between boys and girls. Whilst boys in this age group were regularly active and involved in games and sports, girls in the 13-14 year age group showed little, if any interest, in any form of activity.

Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Séan Power TD, said that young peoples’ habits and behaviours needed to be fostered and nurtured from an early age and that, in order to encourage them to make healthy choices, they needed supportive, facilitating environments, particularly in the home and at school.

The information was released at the start of the Health Promotion Unit of the Department of Health and Children’s campaign to help tackle obesity, which will run from 23rd – 30th November. The campaign Take 5 Steps….to a Healthier You will deliver a new nutritional message in an effort to encourage people to consume five pieces of fruit and/or vegetables, every day. This is an increase from previous guidelines, which recommended the consumption of at least four portions. The widely-used Food Pyramid guide to healthy eating has been updated, in line with the new recommendation.

The campaign also aims to encourage both adults and children to be more active, with the recommendation for adults to take a minimum of 30 minutes of moderate intensity activity and children to take one hour, most days of the week.

The focus group sessions, which were carried out in Dublin, Cork and Galway, demonstrated children’s indepth knowledge of a healthy lifestyle with healthy eating, regular activity, not smoking and drinking lots of water evolving as the ‘definition’ of a healthy person. Homer Simpson, who eats high fat foods and snacks and ‘uses a stick to change TV stations’, is defined as an unhealthy person.

Speaking at the launch, Minister Power said that despite an increased awareness of the prevalence of and health risks associated with obesity, many children were still being served a staple diet of processed food. “I recognise that there is a place for quick, convenient foods, but that doesn’t necessarily mean having to make unhealthy choices. Parents have a huge responsibility to their children as it is clear that they are the driving force in relation to the formation of early habits. Parents foster attitudes to food and indeed physical activity. It is clear that a range of additional supportive environments are needed, right across the board, in order to make it easy for children to follow the ‘Take 5 Steps to a Healthier You’ message, and to help them achieve short and long-term health benefits.

“The health benefits of eating the recommended portions of fruit and vegetables are well documented and regular consumption can help protect against heart disease, cancer and other major illnesses. As well as these health benefits, getting children into the habit of choosing an apple, a banana or a carton of fruit juice as a regular snack food, instead of choosing high fat, high sugar foods and drinks, will help reduce the threat of overweight or obesity.

“However, it is important to remember that to achieve a healthier lifestyle and overall better health, healthy eating goes hand in hand with regular activity,” he said.

The children questioned were able to outline the steps needed to turn an ‘unhealthy’ menu into a ‘healthy menu’. The steps cited included grilling instead of frying, choosing fruit over high fat snacks, eating oven rather than deep fried chips and choosing juice or water over fizzy drinks.

However, when left to their own devices, the children would never purchase a piece of fruit, choosing high fat snacks such as crisps and chocolate instead. In terms of mealtimes, chips and high fat processed foods were selected, more often, over healthier options. Lunch boxes sometimes included fruit or fruit juice, which were sometimes consumed at mini break time and, according to the Minister, lunch box fruit snacks might be a way for parents to encourage children to actually eat more fruit. In terms of mealtimes, chips and high fat processed foods were selected, more often, over healthier options.

The Minister commented; “Awareness needs to be translated into action and positive parental messages that are reinforced in school, by government policy, through industry and through the media, have a positive effect on children’s habits. Young people are finding it difficult to put their knowledge into practice and apply the healthy lifestyle messages to themselves, failing to see any long- term effects on health, and only identify with immediate, short term outcomes.”

The Minister expressed concern over the levels of inactivity of young girls aged 13-14. “Younger girls aged 11-12 appear to lead active lifestyles, enjoying PE in school, swimming, dance classes and playing outdoors with friend. However, once they enter their teens and start post primary school, their interests change and being active is considered ‘not cool’. The gender differences in this regard were very apparent and whilst boys were interested in TV and computer games, sports participation was number one on their list of pastimes,” he commented. “The Departments of Health and Children, together with Education and Science, must work together to help young girls maintain their physical activity patterns into post primary school.

“This vital need for Government Departments to work together was highlighted, earlier this year, by An Taoiseach when he launched the National Taskforce on Obesity Report – Obesity, the Policy Challenges.

Ireland’s National Nutritional Policy

The Minister announced details of a new National Nutrition Policy, the purpose of which is to provide strategic direction on nutrition for the next five to ten years.

“Following publication of the Report of the National Taskforce on Obesity, it was clear that immediate action was required, and this new National Nutrition Policy is part of the Department of Health and Children’s response to the problem of overweight and obesity in Ireland.

“We have prioritised our strategic objectives and will be targeting young people, aged 0-18 years with the key actions focusing on obesity and food poverty.”

Following a national consultation, a ten year policy will be published in 2006.

The Minister outlined some of the key strategic objectives of the policy which, amongst others, include:

  • Increasing the percentage of young people in schools who consume the recommended daily servings of food for a healthy diet, through implementing the food and Nutrition Guidelines for preschools, primary and post primary schools;
  • Facilitating an increase in the percentage of parents providing healthy food choices in the home. The recent National Children’s food Survey (Irish Universities Nutrition Alliance, 2005) found that 89% of meals were eaten in the home. 11% of boys and 12% of girls were overweight and that 9% of boys and 12% of girls was obese;
  • Actions to facilitate parents and families to prepare healthy, convenient and economical meals in the home will be taken. These will include liaison with organisations like the National Parents Council;
  • Increasing fruit and vegetable intake among young people through the implementation of practical programmes such as the Food Dudes;
  • Increasing the provision of information and training to help key players, especially health professionals, tackle poor nutrition among young people;
  • Developing initiatives to care for overweight young people and prevent them from making the transition to obesity;
  • Working in partnership with relevant Government Departments and agencies to promote healthy eating and help reduce food poverty. Food poverty has major implications for obesity, particularly the lack of local access to healthy food choices.
  • Addressing the Department of Health’s commitment to achieving these priority objectives and helping to tackle the problem of obesity in children and young people, the Minister announced that an additional €3m would be made available, next year.

The campaign

The campaign to tackle overweight and obesity was launched by Minister Power and is a response to the growing levels of overweight and obesity in Ireland. Take 5 Steps…to a Healthier You, promotes two main lifestyle areas of healthy eating and regular physical activity.

A high profile programme of activity will be carried out nationwide, including the distribution of leaflets and posters; materials for schools, workplaces and health professionals; national promotions; competitions and many other localised events, which will be organised by the Community Nutrition and Dietetic Service and the Physical Activity Coordinators in the Health Promotion Departments of the Health Service Executive.

A dedicated campaign website will be online from 23rd November.

oderate Intensity Activity Means •You will start to feel warm

  • Your heart rate will increase
  • Your breathing will be heavier, but you will still be comfortable talking

Lansdowne Market Research conducted the focus group sessions on behalf of the Health Promotion Unit.