Speech by Minister Wallace at Irish Heart Foundation’s Annual Happy Heart Healthy Eating Awards

Good afternoon and thank you for inviting me here to address the 16th Happy Heart Healthy Eating Awards ceremony. I would begin by thanking all at the Irish Heart Foundation, and in particular Janis Morrissey, the Irish Heart Foundation’s dietician for all her hard work in organising today’s event.

It is indeed a great privilege for me to present these awards today. The Irish Heart Foundation’s ‘Happy Heart at Work’ Healthy Eating Symbol being awarded today acknowledges the commitment of your organisations. I know that you have all worked very hard to ensure that your food and menus meet the healthy eating guidelines, as set out by the Irish Heart Foundation and the Department of Health and Children.

We all know that prevention is the best cure for any disease. It was because of the close links between diet and health that the Irish Heart Foundation, with the support of my Department, devised the Happy Heart at Work Programme in 1992. Indeed this Programme is the flagship of the Irish Heart Foundation’s health promotion programmes.

I am told that an impressive 400,000 employees in 850 companies are involved in the programme and that the Healthy Eating component of the programme is particularly in demand.

To date over 250 workplaces throughout the country have been assessed, and following detailed audits and monitoring visits, have been certified with the Happy Heart at Work Healthy Eating Symbol. This year the Irish Heart Foundation has certified 55 workplace restaurants, ranging from private companies to semi-state bodies, a university and, I note with satisfaction, a number of hospitals. I am particularly pleased to note that this award guarantees healthy choices on menus in canteens and healthy catering practices in the kitchens of approximately 30,000 employees.

Cardiovascular disease, including heart attack, stroke and other circulatory diseases, is still the leading cause of death in Ireland. It has to be acknowledged that while great inroads have been made in recent years in tackling these diseases, the rise in obesity threatens to halt this progress. Preventing heart disease and obesity therefore requires a multi-targeted approach. Irish workplaces provide a key setting in which to promote important health programmes such as healthy eating.

The Irish Heart Foundation’s Happy Heart Healthy Eating Awards is a unique and important initiative which is making strong in-roads to tackle many of our chronic diseases, and in particular cardiovascular disease and obesity.

There is overwhelming evidence to show that healthy eating plays an important role in reducing the risk of heart disease, certain cancers, type 2 diabetes and other chronic diseases. The prevalence of overweight and obesity is a major public health problem, not just in Ireland, but internationally, and has been described by the World Health Organisation as a ‘global epidemic.’

The importance of addressing and halting the rise in obesity is critical and as Minister for Health Promotion I have made this issue one of my top priorities and I am committed to continuing programmes and initiating policies to promote healthy lifestyles by working in partnership with public and private sectors, in particular with the food industry. The workplaces that participate in these awards encourage healthy eating by providing healthy food choices.

People’s lifestyles, and the conditions in which they live and work, influence their health and how long they live. Individuals are responsible for lifestyle choices which determine health in later years. We have to make it easier for people to maintain a healthy weight, thereby avoiding the problem of obesity and the chronic diseases associated with it, which impact on the individual, the health services and the broader society.

It is rather alarming to note that almost 60% of the disease burden in Europe is accounted for by seven leading risk factors, factors which we can influence. These are, high blood pressure, tobacco, alcohol, high blood cholesterol, overweight, low fruit and vegetable intake, and physical inactivity.

Figures from the recent ‘Survey of Lifestyle Attitude and Nutrition’ or SLAN report, as it is better known, show that 39% of adults are overweight and 25% are obese. That means that, in effect, two-thirds of our population is either overweight or obese, which is, I’m sure you will agree, an alarming statistic. As a result, all of these people run an increased risk of developing a chronic health condition. In fact, it is estimated that obesity is responsible for around 2,000 premature deaths in Ireland, each year. Of all chronic diseases, obesity is the most preventable. All of you here today appreciate the benefits of healthy eating habits and the crucial role they play in the fight against obesity and heart disease. The best way to tackle overweight is on the prevention front before it leads to medical problems.

The world of work is undergoing major change – a process that will continue. Today’s busy lifestyles mean that workers are eating an increasingly large proportion of their food away from home. The workplace is an ideal setting in which to promote healthy lifestyles. People spend a large proportion of their lives in the workplace. Employees can acquire the knowledge and incentive to adopt healthy behaviour both in and out of the workplace through targeted workplace health promotion.

I hope that this award today will encourage both the companies and individual employees to continue with the positive changes already made and to work towards a more health-inducing environment for everyone.