Minister Áine Brady speaking at the Nutrition & Health Foundation’s Seminar – Obesity: a life cycle perspective

Good morning Ladies and Gentlemen, I was delighted to be invited here to open this seminar this morning and I thank the Nutrition and Health Foundation for giving me the opportunity to speak with you.

We are all well aware of the problem of obesity and the threat it poses both individually and from a societal point of view.

Obesity is often viewed in isolation as a problem within itself but it is in fact a symptom of an imbalance in lifestyle. A more holistic approach to health is required to address it. Much work has been done to try to alleviate the problem, and to address the issues which give rise to it. Many of these are detailed in the Report of the Intersectoral Group on the Implementation of the Recommendations of the National Taskforce on Obesity which my Department published last year. The challenge at Government level and for healthcare professionals is to convince people that the solution is often within their own grasp, because, in my view, unless attitudes change, the full benefit of any investment will not be realised.

We need to encourage people to take more responsibility for their own health. How one views health strongly influences one’s health-related behaviour. Those who view health in terms of achieving optimum health and wellbeing, as opposed to the absence of disease, are more inclined to take an active role in protecting it. There are few cases where the concept of individual responsibility are as strikingly and visibly illustrated as in the need for each individual to control his or her weight. The results of unhealthy behaviours tend to be viewed as far removed in time, so it takes motivation and considerable maturity to make the right choices in favour of healthy lifestyle, and good eating habits in particular.

Learning to take responsibility for one’s health requires a combination of factual knowledge and adopting appropriate values. My Department is in the process of concluding a revision of the food pyramid and healthy eating guidelines in an effort to help increase people’s awareness of their nutritional requirements and the type of food and portion sizes required for health. We also hope that we can help and encourage people to read and understand food labels to identify genuinely healthy products.

I acknowledge that the food industry has played an active role in helping consumers make informed choices. However, research indicates that many consumers fail to inform themselves as to the actual nutritional value of foods with 60% – 70% of Irish consumers not reading food labels. At EU level a proposal for a regulation on the provision of food information to consumers was introduced in January 2008 and it is hoped this Regulation will be finalised early next year. It will provide for a mandatory nutrition declaration to include information on energy value and the amount of fat, saturates, carbohydrates, sugars, protein and salt; all of which will have to be presented in the same field of vision.

I know the food sector has carried out much work in recent years in providing improved nutritional information on packs. The industry has also developed new healthier products which are lower in saturated fat and sugar. The adoption of standard labelling will, we hope, encourage consumers to examine food labels.

I am also aware that the industry has worked with the Food Safety Authority since 2003 to achieve gradual, sustained and universal reductions in the salt content of processed and prepared foods and they are to be congratulated for their efforts.

The new food labelling requirements will, I trust, enable consumers identify the genuinely healthy products available and to see through some of the clever marketing ploys used to lead them into believing that some products are healthier than they actually are. Sometimes even food labelled as ‘healthy’ can have high levels of fat, sugar or salt. A product which proclaims that it is, for example, ‘low fat’ may contain high levels of salt or sugar. Added sugars can be called by their chemical names such as sucrose, glucose, dextrose or maltose. How many people know to multiply the sodium content of a food by 2.5 to find the salt content? All this can be very confusing for consumers. Perhaps it is not so surprising that few of them actually read food labels!

Given my background, issues relating to overweight and obesity in childhood are of particular concern to me. While it is reflective of what is happening across the wider population, the rising trend of obesity in children leads to a wide-range of serious health and social problems and reduces the average age at which diet-related diseases such as type 2 diabetes become apparent.

Making the healthy choice does not unfortunately come automatically. It takes conscious effort and motivation. We need to make the healthy lifestyle pattern so automatic that it becomes second nature. Alfred Vogel, the well known nutritionist and herbalist once remarked that people could change their political party, their religion, even their spouse but that if you wanted to get them to change their diet you had a tough battle on hands! Many people, accustomed to an unhealthy diet, find it very difficult to adjust. This is why it is so important to develop healthy eating patterns at a young age.

There is a vast body of scientific evidence to support the view that breast feeding gives infants the best start in life and helps protect against obesity and other chronic conditions in later life. In 2005 my Department developed a Five Year Strategic Action Plan to promote breast feeding as being the norm in Ireland, thereby helping to improve the health of the nation as a whole.

To help establish healthy eating habits, my Department devised a series of healthy eating guidelines, including guidelines for pre-schools and primary schools. Initiatives like the Department of Agriculture Fisheries and Food’s Food Dudes programme, which has had extremely positive feedback from both parents and teachers, and the Incredible Edibles growing challenge in collaboration with the food industry have been very successful in encouraging children to eat more fruit and vegetables. I would encourage parents and guardians to ask about the food served to their children in creches and pre-schools; to question schools about their food policies; and most importantly to make the effort themselves to provide their children with a healthy lunchbox.

As today marks the start of European Mobility Week, I cannot let the opportunity pass without touching on the issue of physical activity. We know from SLÁN and other lifestyle surveys that physical inactivity poses a major challenge across the population.

We know that regular physical activity reduces the risk of developing the chronic illnesses associated with overweight and obesity. What is not always appreciated is that a person’s emotional health also greatly influences their health-related behaviour. Some people lack adequately developed methods of coping with life’s stresses. Physical activity can play a crucial role in this respect as it provides a great way of dealing with stress.

The National Physical Activity Guidelines set out how much exercise is desirable for children and adults, including older adults, and provide practical advice on how this can be achieved.

As Minister for Older People, I would like to stress how important remaining active and eating a healthy, nutritious diet is for older people. It is important to prevent the problem of overweight that often comes with a less active lifestyle. Eating nutritious food is a very important component of health and quality of life for older adults. Malnutrition, while typically associated with underweight, can occur even in overweight people whose food does not provide them with the appropriate levels of nutrients.

Responsibility for achieving and maintaining good health is multi-layered; involving the individual, the health sector, education, the food industry and the broader society. It is therefore important that a holistic approach be taken to its protection. Giving people information is the first step in assisting them take control of their own lifestyle and weight, thereby avoiding obesity and the chronic diseases associated with it. I want to promote the concept of adding “life to years” rather than simply “years to life”. My Department will continue to support efforts to create greater awareness around the positive lifestyle behaviours which help people stay in shape and allow them live healthier lives for longer.

I would like to conclude by thanking the Nutrition and Health Foundation for keeping the whole area of health and well-being centre stage.