"Ireland has the second highest obesity rate in the EU." Wow! This was the headline in the Irish Times on Thursday 22nd July 2021. I knew it was bad but I didn’t think it was this bad.
According to Eurostat (the EU’s statistics agency) 26% of Irish adults were obese in 2019. We are second in Europe just behind Malta, where the obesity rate was 28%. I know as a country we are striving to do well in Europe, but this is one league table we should not be proud of.
In the last five years, Ireland’s obesity rate has increased by 8%, increasing from 18% in 2014 to 26% in 2019. Within Ireland, 61% of Irish males are overweight compared to 49% of females.
I believe there are two key factors that are contributing to Ireland’s growing obesity levels, sugar and lack of exercise.
#1 - The Sugar Effect
Drugs in Ireland are illegal. Our children quite rightly can’t walk into a shop and buy any kind of hard drug. However, we allow our children to walk into any shop and buy sweets! Sweets are largely made up of sugar and sugar is quite simply a drug. It’s highly addictive and very bad for us.
Apart from being widely available, sweets are getting cheaper. You can now go into your local supermarket or convenience store and buy bags full of sweets at very little cost. I have three daughters and I can honestly say that trying to manage and reduce their sugar intake is one of my top challenges as a parent.
Just a few weeks ago during Halloween night, one of my girls had to come home and get another carrier bag because the first bag was full! Do we realise the effects that sugar has on us?
Dr. Hu. R. Frank, a professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, says “The effects of added sugar intake are higher blood pressure, inflammation, weight gain, diabetes, and fatty liver disease, which are all linked to an increased risk for heart attack and stroke".
With such overwhelming evidence as the negative effect sugar has on our bodies, why are we making it so cheap and easy to buy?
#2 The Exercise Effect
The second major factor I believe is contributing to Ireland’s increased obesity levels is a lack of exercise. Young people in Ireland have grown up with the internet and are constantly on their devices.
Companies like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok are paying billions of dollars every year to keep our young people interacting with their applications. Teenagers are choosing to play on their Nintendo, PlayStation or Xbox rather than to go outside and play sport. This is hurting them physically as well as reducing their socialisation.
In 2019, Dublin City University (DCU) conducted a nationwide survey of more 5,500 adolescents from 79 secondary schools across Ireland. The research was exploring the association between physical activity and mental health issues among adolescents.
They found that only 8% of teenagers in Ireland were getting the daily recommendation of 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity. Of those surveyed, they found 40% self-reported symptoms of depression and anxiety.
The research was undertaken by PhD student and PE teacher John Murphy and DCU academics Dr. Bronagh McGrane and Dr. Mary Rose Sweeney. They concluded that schools and the wider community should promote regular physical activity and engagement in individual or team sports to enhance wellbeing and positive mental health in adolescents.
Dr Mary Rose Sweeney said “as a society we need to increase the opportunities for young people to become more active”.
Where do we go from here?
Obesity in Ireland is a growing problem. We need to tackle it now. We can do it by making sugar and in particular, sweets less accessible and more expensive. Like cigarettes and alcohol, we need to put labels on sugary foods to let people know the dangers.
A passion of mine is getting people, particularly the younger generation, playing more sport. SportsKey is on a mission to help 20,000,000 people play sport by 2024. We will do this by making it easy for people to find and book their local sports facilities. Please send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org if you think you can help also.
Yours in sport,