14 February 2014 No Comments by The Northern Standard

The life expectancy and life quality of human beings can be crucially influenced, for good or ill, by the eating habits they acquire from an early age.

Just how important good nutrition practices are to cultivate in the very young has perhaps been under-estimated in the past, but its increasing emphasis in health promotion activities today, and the greater “food literacy” of the modern consumer, should be effective guarantors that the emerging generations of Irish people are given foundations for future health and wellbeing sturdier than the generations that preceded them.

Yet we are in the midst of an obesity crisis – of a scale and extent that took even the members and officials of Monaghan Co Council aback when it was delineated in a presentation to their most recent meeting by HSE expert Dr Nazih Eldin (see story, page one).

The erudite Dr Eldin pulled few punches in defining the urgency of dealing with this major health issue, which he was convinced did not fall into the remit of medical professionals alone to grapple with.

He had some interesting and challenging things to say about how local authorities themselves could take on more responsibility in this regard – by exercising their function as planning authorities to ensure that urban and rural environments were equipped with facilities encouraging good health habits in the population, while developments potentially adverse to dietary well being (the proliferation of fast food outlets, for example) were responsibly constrained.

Food for thought was certainly produced by the Co Council’s engagement with the HSE authority on the subject, and there is undoubted merit in the proposals that emerged from the meeting to lobby Health Minister Dr James Reilly on the introduction of a calorie-explicit labelling system for foodstuffs and the removal of VAT from bottled water.

A much more muscular code of practice and regulation is certainly required when it comes to the promotion and marketing of sugar-rich soft drinks and confectionery of particular appeal to the young – a binding system of controls that must apply not just to the manufacturers of these products but to their retailers.

Many of our supermarkets and shops have bought in to the need to educate both parents and children about healthy food choices and any weekly shopping odyssey will bring one into contact with at least one or two promotional campaigns in this regard.

But the same shopping experience will undoubtedly also involve encounters with a far greater number of promotions in which processed products, confectionery or snack food items are subject to special offers and encouragements to purchase multiples of an item to accomplish a putative saving.

This tendency not only undermines the work that retail outlets do to pass on the message of being health-conscious and responsible in food purchasing – it counteracts it, leading to waste in some cases and in others to the accumulation in households of a stockpile of fizzy drinks, chocolate bars and other products whose immoderate consumption by young people is at the heart of the obesity problem.

If retailers are to pay anything more than lip service to the fostering of healthy eating practices, they must seriously look at the prominence and frequency afforded to promotions of this type, which exploit the economic pressures currently being experienced by families to the possible detriment of their health.

And the state of the country’s economy is undoubtedly a major factor that anyone seeking to force back the obesity tide must address and contend with.

If a scale of accurate measurement could be devised by the statisticians, there is little doubt that the phenomenon of “food poverty” would emerge as one of the greatest banes of 2014 Ireland.

Restricted incomes and overbearing financial pressures make cheap food not just an attractive option but a compelling necessity in a huge and growing number of households – and while cheap food is not necessarily unhealthy food, the availability and marketing of bargain brand ready meals and processed items that are not compatible with a healthy lifestyle is so extensive that unwise choices are inevitably made by the cash-strapped consumer with a family to feed.

Obesity in children did not come in with the downturn – but the perpetuation and exacerbation of the problem could be one of the more insidious and harmful legacies of the fiscal crisis, one the country will be paying for perhaps far longer than it takes to discharge the monetary indebtedness that currently burdens us.

In recognition of this, Minister Reilly and the Government should take meaningful steps to assist those who like Dr Eldin are working to implement long-term strategies to better identify incipient obesity in the very young and address its potentially harmful effects on body, mind and spirit before they take chronic root.

A mandatory screening programme for the condition should be implemented for school-entry age groups.

Robust controls should be introduced that compel manufacturers of foodstuffs to display the calorie count they contain prominently and explicitly – indeed, we may be nearing a stage when, as Colr John O’Brien suggested during the Co Council debate, serious consideration will have to be given to imposing branding and packaging restraints on some of the more potentially damaging foodstuffs similar to those now governing the sale of tobacco products.

And perhaps the best antidote would be the concentration of significant levels of capital expenditure on those sectors that provide young people with healthy recreational outlets – the sports organisations and community groups throughout our parishes and communities who are working, often on a voluntary basis, to man the ramparts in the front line of this battle.
Ultimately we must equip the young people at risk to better help themselves. Are we giving them enough knowledge, at home and at school, about the importance of personal fitness, the basics of human health and how to cook nutritious food?
These are important, perhaps crucial questions, for parents and educators to ponder.

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