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UCC Public Health Study calls on Government to take action

According to a new University College Cork (UCC) report released at the beginning of November, Ireland is falling behind in the fight against obesity. Some 300,000 children in Ireland are now classified as obese.

Leaders in public health have cited findings from the study in the past few days; using it to highlight steps that need to be taken to tackle the obesity epidemic. The report has caused calls for a reform of Ireland’s food environment, including the introduction of ‘no fry zones’, enhanced education on food, and changes to food production and marketing.

The first ever ‘Irish Healthy Food Environment Policy Index’ (Food-EPI) has highlighted how, when compared to other countries, Ireland performed poorly at rolling out measures to reduce the marketing of unhealthy food to children in the media and online.

The Food-EPI Ireland study is led by Dr Janas Harrington at UCC’s School of Public Health.
The report has been labelled a ‘landmark’ and hopefully a ‘turning-point’ in how the Government will proceed in tackling the rising issue of both adult and childhood obesity. The report cited four major gaps: These included a lack of government action on the introduction of targets for out-of-home meals; a failure to restrict the promotion of unhealthy foods to children on food packaging; no discernible progress in the public sector to provide and promote healthy food choices, and a failure to implement policies that encourage the availability of outlets selling nutritious foods.

“The government needs to seize an opportunity to improve the diets of the Irish population, prevent obesity and diet-related non-communicable diseases by investing in the kind of policies and programmes which have demonstrated success in a number of countries,” Dr Harrington said. “The benefits are two-fold – aside from improving the health of the general population, these measures are highly cost-effective, and in the long-run can help counteract the rising healthcare costs associated with obesity and diet-related-non communicable diseases.” The report also had some positive findings, including the fact that Ireland rates well in ensuring the public has access to nutritional information. It also found that Ireland has made significant progress in monitoring overweight and obesity prevalence in the population.

Alarmingly, the number of children who are considered clinically obese is expected to rise by 10,000 per annum unless firm and immediate action is taken. Ireland has one of the fastest rising rates of childhood obesity in the world. One in five Irish children are now considered to be obese, with some clinicians sighting the surge in weight-related health issues at ‘near-epidemic levels.’

Dr. Harrington has proposed tough measures to ensure the health of the future generation. The report recommended five major policy changes including: ‘no-fry zones’ within close proximity (400 metres) of primary and secondary schools. The introduction of nutritional standards for schools, to include the goods sold in ‘tuck shops’ and cafeterias. The establishment of a committee to monitor and evaluate food-related income support programmes for vulnerable population groups. The report also suggested ‘ring-fencing’ of tac on unhealthy food to subsidise healthy options for disadvantaged groups in the community; as well as the implementation of a comprehensive policy on nutrition standards for food and beverage provision in the public sector.

Dr. Harrington said that along with these measures, Ireland must overhaul the entire “food environment” – this includes a wide ranging process from food production, processing, marketing and distribution. The Food-EPI will now serve as a benchmark for the Government to monitor the nation’s health and food lifestyle. The study was conducted between January 2018 and June 2020 with an expert panel from academia, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, Safefood, the HSE and various charities.