Speech by Micheál Martin TD, Minister for Health and Children at the Launch of a national public awareness campaign to tackle the issues of overweight and obesity in Ireland

Every Step Counts – Small Changes Make The Difference

Good afternoon Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am delighted to be here today to launch the national public awareness campaign to help tackle the issues of overweight and obesity in Ireland.

The aim of this countrywide campaign is not only to generate greater levels of awareness for this major health issue but to demonstrate, through practical means, ways to avoid becoming overweight and obese and maintain a healthy weight. Education and information will be fundamental to the campaign so as to enable people make healthier lifestyle choices.

Both ambitious and achievable, this campaign aims also to motivate and harness the support of other sectors of society to address this multi-faceted issue.

The theme, Every Step Counts – Small Changes Make the Difference is being spearheaded for Government by the Health Promotion Unit of my Department, and will focus on and integrate two key lifestyle issues: healthy eating – incorporating healthier portion sizes – and the need for regular physical activity.

Scale of the Problem

Obesity is now emerging as one of Ireland’s most serious health problems. Today, whilst almost every second person is overweight, one in eight Irish people is obese, representing a 30% increase in reported obesity levels over the last four years.

Increases in obesity levels over the past 30 years have been paralleled by a dramatic rise in the prevalence of diabetes. Globally, around 85% of people with diabetes have been classified with type 2 diabetes and of these, 90% are obese or overweight.

Obesity is a complex condition that has an impact on virtually all ages and socio-economic groups.

There are many physical problems related to obesity, including back ailments and breathing difficulties. Although obesity should be considered a condition in its own right, it is also one of the key risk factors for chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease; together with smoking, high blood pressure and high blood cholesterol.

A 40 year old who is obese can expect to reduce his or her life expectancy by up to seven years, compared to people with a healthy weight.

The situation is worse for smokers. Obese smokers, on average, lose 13 years off their average lifespan, compared to people with a healthy weight, who are non smokers.

Obesity in Children

A recent survey by the South Eastern Health Board highlighted that 8% of children are clinically obese. This reflects the worrying scale of childhood obesity, throughout Ireland.

As a priority, we therefore need to address the trend and scale of overweight and obesity in Irish children. To do that, we need to look at the eating and activity habits of children and the main influences.  We need to support and make it easier for children to eat healthy foods and be more active. This should include educating and informing parents on the positive lifestyle choices for their children.

Determinants of Obesity

The key causes of obesity are linked to food habits and physical activity levels. There is convincing evidence that a high intake of energy-dense foods promotes weight gain. Conversely, a high intake of dietary fibre helps promote weight maintenance and loss.

Research suggests that passive over-consumption of foods can lead to obesity. Linked to this is the issue of large portion sizes, another factor for unhealthy weight gain.

Whilst it is true that physical activity can protect against unhealthy weight gain – it is ongoing and regular physical activity that is protective – and not previous physical activity or temporary bouts of activity such as temporary enrolment in exercise programmes.

What Can Be Done To Prevent Obesity

Obesity is caused by lifestyle choices. Habits need to be changed if an obese person is to stand a good chance of losing weight. There are no quick fixes.

This is a major challenge for Ireland and the key elements must include promoting healthy behaviours to encourage, motivate and enable overweight and obese individuals to lose weight by:

  • eating more fruit and vegetables, as well as whole grain breads and cereals;
  • engaging in moderate physical activity for at least 30 minutes for adults and one hour for children, most days of the week;
  • cutting the amount of fatty, sugary foods in the diet;
  • Paying attention to portion size choices and
  • moving to lower fat choices, preferably from unsaturated fat sources.

Activity Programme

During the main campaign months of September and October, a high profile programme of activity will be carried out nationwide.  This will include the distribution of thousands of leaflets and posters; supermarket activity; nationwide dance events for young people; resources for schools; fun record-breaking initiatives; a dedicated, interactive website; press competitions and give-aways; workplace information programmes and many other events which will be organised by the Health Promotion Departments of the local Health Boards.

Every Step Counts, Small Changes Make the Difference will complement the work already being done by the National Task Force on Obesity, which I established earlier this year.

The Taskforce is developing a strategy to tackle overweight and obesity and their work should be completed by the end of this year.


I would like to thank our many partners for their on-going, invaluable support in this area and in particular my Health Board colleagues in health promotion, especially  Community Dietitians and the Physical Activity Coordinators.

I would also like to extend my gratitude and thanks to Bord Bia and Bord Iascaigh Mhara, the Irish Heart Foundation, the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute, Chambers of Commerce, the Association of Teachers of Home Economics, Keelings Fruit company, the Irish Countrywomen’s Association, and members of the retail food sector, many of whom have kindly agreed to support our campaign.

Many companies within the food industry are also promoting the healthy eating message and I would like to pay tribute to their sterling efforts.

Ladies and gentlemen, if you take away just two small messages with you today, remember the campaign theme – Every Step Counts, Small Changes Make the Difference.  It’s true, it works and it’s achievable.

Thank you