December 20, 2006

Children are chomping their way to an epidemic

Posted in Ireland · 12 comments ·

For anyone who has first-hand experience of the debilitating effects of diabetes – particularly in the old – a survey this week which reveals the prevalence of obesity in children makes disturbing reading.

The link between obesity and diabetes is clear. It seems the nation is eating its way to an epidemic. So before you sneak a last seasonal super-sized Twix or go for seconds at the Christmas party, stop and think about what is happening to us: Ireland is bloating.

A survey of six-year-olds in the west, which was published in this paper on Monday [1], showed weight problems were worse than previously thought. While every third person in Ireland is known to be overweight, and one in eight of us are obese (these figures include more than 300,000 children nationwide who suffer from the twin problems), the new research reveals that children are eating their way to a life of serious health problems at a younger age than ever before.

The survey of senior infants in Mayo’s national schools shows 27pc of them are either obese or overweight. That compares with a Europe-wide figure for five to 17-year-olds of less than 20pc. Broken down, the Mayo survey reveals that girls (30pc) are more prone than boys (25pc) to putting on excessive weight.

However, according to the study, the group most at risk of being overweight and having obesity is six-year-old boys whose families hold a medical card.

This class/wealth finding is crucial and tallies with the suggestion that obesity is now the disease of the poor. Anecdotally, the evidence for this proposition is everywhere.

Growing up in Dun Laoghaire in the 1980s, I remember all the hard men were sinewy, scrawny lads, hence the local description “more meat on a seagull”. The reason was simple: they were undernourished. Perched on the church wall in the town were skinny, arseless lads, spitting and smoking Majors. The ‘young wans’, despite having had a couple of babies, were more or less the same: pinched, flat-chested and drawn.

Today, Dun Laoghaire’s hard men are fat. Rolls of flab strain the Liverpool away strip. Double chins are de rigueur and little piggy eyes are squeezed into sockets among the flab. Gravity has also got the better of the young wans, as their corpulent bums, like two puppies fighting in a bag, make unsightly bids for freedom over their ultra low-rise jeans.

According to the national task force on obesity – which gives the nod to the Mayo survey – 30pc of Irish women are overweight and a further 12pc are obese, while nearly half of Irish adult males are overweight and 14pc are obese. Even our babies are born bigger. We are turning into a race of Sumo wrestlers with 20pc of our infants, weighing more than 10 pounds when they were delivered – a four-fold rise on the same figure in 1990.

Is this any surprise when we spend more on crisps than on pharmaceutical drugs?

According to the latest household budget survey [2], our spending on chip shops and takeaways went up by over 70pc in the past seven years. We also doled out more than 50pc extra on sweets, while we spent 42pc more on soft drinks. We spent €721m on the teeth-rotting fizzy drinks last year, almost twice as much as we did on calcium enhancing milk. Is it any wonder that diabetes is the fastest growing disease in the country when our Kit Kat and Snickers bill alone per year dwarfs our total spending on organic food?

And as the Mayo survey indicated, nationally, it is the poor who are getting fatter quickest. Only 8pc of university graduates are obese, whereas close to one in five of those who left school before the Junior Cert are supersized.

In the past, fatness was a sign of wealth, education and privilege. In contrast, the poor were skinny. These days, the rich are thin. The problem now is that there are signs of an epidemic emerging.

Some 27pc of 11-year-old Irish boys and 29pc of Irish girls are overweight, and little girls aged between five and eight are ballooning quicker than boys. One in three is overweight. We go from toddlers to waddlers in a shockingly short period. And, more worryingly, 11pc of Irish seven-year-old girls are obese.

The level of obesity in our children is making them unhappy, with one in five of 11-year-old boys and girls saying they are dissatisfied with their weight. This figure rises to over one in three by the time the girls are aged 13. Twenty percent of our fifth class girls are on diets, literally starving themselves, while a recent survey of Dublin schoolgirls reveals one in five of them said smoking was part of their dieting strategy. As for exercise, well it’s not surprising they are dieting because they are not getting out. Ireland has the highest proportion of houses with Sony Playstations, at an amazing 41pc, while levels of DVD and video rental are three times higher per head here than in Britain.

So if they are not fasting, starving, watching TV, glued to the Playstation or smoking, they are eating, gorging and expanding. This carry-on is now being blamed for the dramatic rise in diabetes in Ireland according to the Diabetes Federation [3] which predicts that the incidence of disease here will have doubled by 2010. “Diabetes treatment accounts for an estimated 10pc of the total Healthcare budget, costing the Exchequer approximately €444m annually,” it says.

If that figure sounds big, let me put it into context – we spend more than this each year on diabetes-enhancing, refined sugar-based products such as Coke, Dairy Milk chocolate and Tayto crisps.Diabetes is the disease of the future.

But it won’t happen to you. So go on, have another morsel. It’s Christmas after all.


  1. Tony D

    This over eating goes hand in hand with our economy and will reverse when our economy reverses. More money, less production aka flight from production.
    Cutting corners to bring up profits = slop on our tables.

    Sadly we do have to crash and burn in order for this to be corrected

  2. Nora

    Au contraire! Compare the price of an organic salad with that of a burger. Go into a supermarket and see how cheap the processed “high in fat and high in salt or sugar” foods are. There is an obvious income discrimination in the food market. The gap has become so wide that only the wealthy can afford to eat healthy. Also, the wealthier, more educated people like to cook homemade dinners when the less rich eat “convenient” processed stuffs or take-aways. We have to blame supermarkets and the food industry for all this. Hopefully a better education on what to eat can make a difference: programs relating to weight problems in the UK and campaigns of celebrities like Jamie Oliver, all go to the right direction.

  3. Nick Rooney

    The article is a welcome diversion from some of your more economy based ones. Keep them coming!
    “Is this any surprise when we spend more on crisps than on pharmaceutical drugs?”.
    I really dont think this is such a valid point in an age where we are so reliant on munltinational, mega-rich pharmaceutical giants to cure our ailments, while lining the pockets of their overpaid executives and greedy shareholders. Nutrional education is a far more crucial element that needs to be addressed.
    Might I suggest a most worthwhile book on this topic. Colin Campbell’s “The China Study” deals with the subject of diabetes, amoung others, in an excellent publication that might shock a few people!

  4. laura

    There was an interesting article in Wired a few months ago which suggested that the big pharmas are hard at work trying to develop “cures” for obesity which they are hard at it trying to convince us that it is an illness. Apparently they have come up with a concept (condition?) called syndrome X which apparently makes some people more likely to become overweight.

    However I do think there are huge cultural issues at play here. When so many working class families now live like the fictional stereotypes they have been portrated as over the years (a kind of negative reaction possibly by middle-class sneers at those who are believed to spend their days puffing endless fags over daytime TV?) its no wonder the change has occured.

    But I do think the TV addiction has a lot to do with it, coupled with a loss of essential domestic skills in the population. My mother, like many of her generation, sewed her own wedding dress, bakes her own Christmas cakes and puds, does lots of things for herself.

    Many families see it as “modern” and “progressive” to eat endless “TV dinners” which is basically what convenience foods are – quick microwaveable and easy to produce foods. I once took apart a KFC chicken and was shocked to discover how little of it was meat, and the extent to which the dressings and crusts which make these foods so popular is basically bulked up breadcrumbs and fat.

    The thing is, its not cheaper to buy fruit, veg and raw meat at your local supermarket, but it is hugely cheaper to buy the same from a family butcher and greengrocer, but few people now take the trouble to do so. When I lived in Dublin I noticed how local butchers were disappearing from large urban areas. For example Ranelagh has none. Swords, with a population of nearly 40k, no longer has a local butcher in the main shopping area. Moving to Cork was a revelation: even a small town like Fermoy has at 3. Midelton and Mallow have 4 each. In fact the Golden Pages lists 116 butchers for Cork. The disappearance of traditional craft butchers in Dublin is contrasted with a huge hike in the cost of meat in supermarket, much of it of very poor quality in comparison.

    The problem is in order to make the most of plain veg and meat, you need good basic cooking skills, which many people don’t have. And the advertising of foods and way in which nutritional information is displayed is highly deceptive: my favourite scam is showing calorie counts per item when the item is only a tiny scrap – barely a mouthful. Which is part of the reason why there is such a huge difference in obesity levels between the educated and barely literate.

  5. Vandala

    It’s interesting how these statistics are constantly used to project an image of the poor as ineffectual, gormless layabouts. It might be worth unpacking the figures further: what percentage, for example, of the overall statistics for obseity can be be attributed to the middle-class? Your assertion that “the rich are thin” may also be a stereotype: I’ve certainly seen plenty of affluent people with “little piggy eyes”.

  6. Tony D

    Dear Nora,
    The price of beef versus fruit and veg (or any meat for that matter) have always been far parted.
    Mon petit pois!.)

  7. SpinstaSista

    When I was at secondary school in the 1980s our home economics teacher showed us how to source and prepare cheap cuts of meat. Our school was middle class, and she was always telling us about the previous school where she taught which was in a deprived area of Dublin. The teacher said that all the girls in that school knew how to source and prepare cheap ingredients and left us middle class girls standing when it came to culinary know-how. Would that be the situation today? Are students being taught how to prepare cheap, nutritious meals at school?

    Trans Fatty Acids are being banned in parts of the US. They are used to prepare cheap, high-fat food, and are major culprit in obesity and heart disease.

    Don’t get me started on all the convenience stores and delis that have mushroomed in this country. I often wonder about the nutritional value of the stuff they sell at deli counters apart from fat and carbs.

  8. Brian

    Recent research in the U.S. indicates that a diet high in sugar and saturated fats may actually be addictive.
    Just the other morning I noticed a young man in hi-viz jacket buying an enormous breakfast roll and a two litre bottle of Coca Cola from the local convenience store and I was reminded of the time, many years ago, when I set out to work with a ham sandwich and a pint of milk.
    I don’t begrudge the hard working lads in the building industry their rich breakfast but I did feel some concern for the long-term effect of this food regime.
    BUPA has an interesting article on the research into the effects of sugar and fats in our diets..

  9. John

    categorising people in such a glib way is lazy. While there are problems with people taking the easy i.e. cheap option with food many of the middle classes are also producing lard-arsed kids. They just dress them better. Watch trinny and susannah (a staple of the better off tv watchers) and they will show you how to hide the fat. Walk around prosperous suburbs and look at the teenage girls of the well off. They are all wearing outsize canterbury track suit bottoms in the belief that they make them look thin rather than having rear ends the size of buses.

  10. Ian

    Surely David,

    The only real problem with the obesity epidemic is that it is not rendering these fat proles impotent quick enough. If you get them to start attempting to have children in their twenties instead of when they are 12 +, than obesity and diabetes could become a real tool of social Darwinism. This is what you were getting at wasn’t it? Survival of the fittest (not fattest)?

  11. S Wall

    Thinking outside the box

    A good way to tackle this would be the state provision of swimming pools/gyms with the state giving everybody with an RSI number automatic free membership.

    To “Encourage use” of the facilites, tax credits/cash payments could be gained upon passing a yearly fitness test – how about that for an incentive!

  12. Jonathan Benson

    When I was a young lad I was let run around the nearby streets and when I was a bit older I was milling around the phoenix park. Now my mother told me never to talk to strangers and warned me ofthe dangers of somebody trying to abduct me but I was nevertheless free to roam. Now I ate like nothing on earth as my mother is fond of reminding me, and while I went through a pudgy stage once or twice I was never fat. See how many parents would let their children roam nowadays, not many. Fear has made parents willing accomplices to childrens TV, Playstation and sugar addictions. Its also easier to keep a prison population quiet when drugs are readily available. The same could be said of todays housebound children.

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