Almost one in five children in Northern Ireland is overweight by the time they start primary school, a new report reveals.
The shock statistics from the British Heart Foundation (BHF) provide a stark signal of the ticking time bomb facing the health of our young people.
It is also a concern for the future of an already overstretched Health Service.
Health Minister Edwin Poots told the Belfast Telegraph the issue of childhood obesity was a “particular concern”.
The BHF figures reveal nearly 20% of children in the province are now overweight, or even obese, before they reach just five years of age.
Overall, 27% of children here are now classified as being overweight — with 8% of them reaching obese levels.
The number of children who are obese in Northern Ireland has doubled in the last 15 years, based on a similar survey carried out in 1997/98.
The figures for youngsters aged around five said 4% were obese with 17% considered overweight.
The worrying statistics are contained in the Healthy Survey for Northern Ireland and guidelines put forward by the International Obesity Task Force.
BHF senior dietician Victoria Taylor said the research indicates serious problems lie ahead for many children.
“These figures show that the lifestyles of many children in Northern Ireland could be setting them up for serious ill-health in the future,” she said.
“We need to teach kids about a balanced diet and encourage them to stay active from an early age.”
Mr Poots, who has initiated specific policies to tackle the problem, said: “The issues of being overweight and obese have become an increasingly important public health issue.
“Childhood obesity is of a particular concern as the habits nurtured as children tend to follow us through to adulthood and these habits can cause great negative impacts to an individual's health and wellbeing.”
Stormont launched A Fitter Future For All programme last year aiming to improve the diet and physical activity levels of the entire population, with a special focus on young people.
Since 2009 BHF Northern Ireland has invested £500,000, working in partnership with both the Northern and Southern Health and Social Care Trusts, local councils, community groups and the Public Health Agency to help improve heart health here.
The Hearty Lives project seeks to help people living in the poorest areas of the UK who are at the greatest risk of contracting heart disease.
Three areas in Northern Ireland were awarded funding — Craigavon, Cookstown and Carrickfergus.
Of the three, Cookstown is the longest running project, having been awarded £225,000 in the autumn of 2009.
Jayne Murray from the BHF said 10,100 people have benefited from the Hearty Lives project in Cookstown since 2009, adding that the town was “an excellent example of what transforming your care is about”.
]The project in Cookstown has worked closely with eight GP practices identifying and prioritising health needs.
This has included health screening for men between 40 and 55, smokers, and people who are unlikely to visit their doctor.
According to the BHF, it is too early to say to what extent the projects in Craigavon and Carrickfergus have been successful.
The £100,000 scheme in Craigavon aims to offer cardiovascular risk assessments and advice to the Irish traveller and black minority ethnic communities. The area is classed as the fourth most deprived local district in Northern Ireland with life expectancy for male travellers 15 years less than for the general population and 11.5 years less for women travellers.
Ms Murray descibed how the simple act of handing out a leaflet on heart disease can be problematic due to the high levels of illiteracy in some communities. It is hoped that knowledge and awareness of heart conditions in the area will be improved through communities working together within the Hearty Lives partnership.
The final Hearty Lives project is located in Carrickfergus Borough. Whitehead, Carrickfergus and Greenisland have female life expectancy rates consistently below the Northern Ireland average, with one in five children becoming overweight or obese by the age of five.
Some £230,000 was awarded to help women achieve and maintain a healthy weight before, during and after pregnancy.
The money was also used to develop obesity prevention programmes for families.
DUP MLA and Carrickfergus councillor David Hilditch said the obesity figures for young children in the area were a “wake up call for everyone involved”.
He said that he was altogether, “not surprised” by the findings adding that parents had a big part to play in helping curb obesity in their children.
Simon Gillespie, chief executive of the British Heart Foundation said: “Through Hearty Lives projects we are committed to working with local communities to give young people most at risk of heart disease a healthier start in life.”
One way to work out if a child is overweight is to calculate their body mass index (BMI).
An adult’s BMI is worked out by dividing their weight by their height. The method is slightly different for children.
A child’s BMI needs to take into consideration their age and gender, as well as their weight and height.
Once the child's BMI is calculated the number should be plotted on a growth chart which converts the BMI into a BMI centile in order to obtain a percentile ranking.
A healthy percentile for children falls between the fifth and 85th percentile. However, this is only a guide, and if you are worried about your child's health you should contact your GP.