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Obesity: 'We have gained one pound a year over the past twenty years'

Parenting is tougher than ever these days, but we can be tougher as parents, writes Dr John Sharry.

Dr John Sharry Founder of the Parents Plus Charity

IF YOU TAKE a moment to reflect about the obesity crisis that is all around us the facts are particularly shocking. Nowadays, each adult is on average twenty pounds heavier than twenty years ago– collectively we have gained one pound a year and are continuing to do so. The average fourteen-year-old child is a full stone heavier than twenty years ago and growing.

The associated health problems such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, strokes and cancers are all increasing. This is even before we take into account the increased mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, and a lack of energy and fitness for life.

The obesity problem has literally grown up around us without us really noticing or taking any action to stop it.

Poor food choices

It is easy to think that the problem is solely caused by a lack of individual willpower. People are overweight because they make poor food choices – right? Children are overweight because their parents don’t give them the right foods – right?

Well the answer is really much more complex. Simple answers about individual choice (which the food industry love to promote), do not take into account the ‘obesogenic’ society in which we all now live and in which our children grow up.

Our lifestyles have become both rushed where we consume ‘quick’ unhealthy food on the go and sedentary where we engage in less activity and less time outdoors. High fat, high sugar foods are advertised in appealing ways to children, and often come with a toy or associated with a favourite movie character – how can broccoli or carrots compete with this?

An abnormal environment

This society and environment in which we now live is such a significant factor in the obesity crisis that the that the editor of the leading medical journal the Lancet concluded that the ‘increasing weight of people worldwide is the result of a normal response by normal people to an abnormal environment’.

In studies repeated exposure to unhealthy food is as significant factor as personal choice in determining our behaviour. Put simply people will eat what is put in front of them. In the workplace, if cakes and pastries are left out for staff at breaks they will be eaten while if these are replaced by fruit this will be eaten also.

If we bring lots of biscuits and crisps into our homes it is only a matter of time before they will all be consumed. When shopping sometimes we only buy the chocolate bar because it is in our eye line at the till or we can’t resist the ‘bargain price’ of three packs for two (when we did not even want one pack in the first place!)

Parenting is tougher than ever

The new Start campaign supported by Safefood, the HSE and Healthy Ireland
(makeastart.ie), recognises the new challenging environment for parents where more willpower than ever is needed to raise healthy children.

The message is that though parenting is tougher than ever these days, we can be tougher as parents in response. While you can’t control the environment outside your home you can take steps to change the environment in your home.

For example, you can make a decision only to have treat foods in the house once a week rather than everyday, or you can ban sugary drinks and only have water or milk as drink options, or you can limit the breakfast choices to porridge with a variety of fruit.

You can also expand this healthy environment into the school by adopting the healthy lunch policy or participating in a healthy schools week. You can use the power of exposure to your advantage by repeatedly introducing your children to fresh fruit and vegetables in new attractive and appealing ways.

Look up exciting new recipes, involve your children in preparing healthy dinners and maybe even get them to grow a few vegetables in the garden.

Bringing up healthy children is harder than ever, but creating one or two new habits can make all the difference.

Dr John Sharry is supporting the national Start Campaign delivered by Safefood, the HSE and Healthy Ireland. See makeastart.ie.

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About the author:

Dr John Sharry  / Founder of the Parents Plus Charity

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