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Northern Ireland's rising obesity and £370m health bill

By Victoria O'Hara

Six in 10 adults and a quarter of children are overweight and obese in Northern Ireland, new figures have revealed.

Research shows a 5% rise in the rate of obesity in adults since 1997.

The Health Survey of Northern Ireland also revealed that almost one in five- 19% - of the population showed signs of a possible mental health problem.

The annual research which gives an insight into the level of health here shows that 67% of males and 56% of females were obese or overweight.

Worringly, 25% of children aged 2-10 were classed as overweight and obese - a figure that has not changed since 2005-6.

A person is considered obese if they are very overweight with a high degree of body fat.

The most common way to assess is to check their body mass index (BMI), which divides weight in kilogrammes by height in metres squared.

If your BMI is above 25 you are overweight. A BMI of 30-40 is considered obese, while above 40 is very obese. A BMI of less than 18.5 is underweight.

The results are drawn from a survey of 4,509 respondents and showed a greater proportion of girls (21%) were overweight compared with boys (15%), but the same proportion of boys and girls were classed as obese (7%).

Meanwhile, 28% of adults do less than 30 minutes of physical activity per week. Around half (53%) of adults in Northern Ireland met the target of 150 minutes per week. Other figures showed that of the women indicating signs of a possible mental health issue, almost half were taking medication for stress, anxiety or depression.

Less than a third of men identified with possible mental health issues were taking medication.

Mental health was measured by the General Health Questionnaire (GHQ12). It contains 12 questions about recent general levels of happiness, depression, anxiety and sleep disturbance. Responses are scored and a score of four or more is classified as a person with a possible psychiatric disorder.

The number of people smoking has dropped from 26% nine years ago to 22%. When it came to alcohol, 64% who were drinking above sensible weekly limits thought they drank a moderate amount.

The survey also gave an insight into children's eating habits:

  • 67% were not eating their five-a-day.
  • 19% of 11-16-year-olds do not eat breakfast on a school day.
  • 27% said they don't eat a school dinner or snack because they were too expensive.
  • 28% said they were too embarrassed to take a free school meal.
  • 27% said they eat sweets, chocolate bars or biscuits (including chocolate biscuits like Twix or KitKat) more than once a day.
  • 33% said they eat meat products (eg sausage rolls, burgers, hot-dogs, pies, chicken nuggets) most days.

Dr John O'Kelly, chairman of the Royal College of General Practitioners in Northern Ireland and GP, said: "GPs are definitely seeing growing numbers of both children and adults who are overweight and obese. It is just passing on to another generation. We are already seeing a significant increase in Type 2 diabetes and expect that to increase. It also has huge ramifications on the health budget."

In 2012 research found that the estimated annual cost of dealing with obesity here is £370m a year.

The study by Safefood said about 25% of the total (£92m) was direct healthcare costs, including hospital, GP and drug treatment.

The research was published as a Belfast Active Travel Action Plan aiming to encourage people to incorporate walking or cycling into their daily travel was launched.

The plan - spearheaded by the Belfast Strategic Partnership (BSP) - is focused on reducing the number of car journeys and improving the walking and cycling network.

Dr Eddie Rooney, chief executive of the Public Health Agency, said: "By incorporating physical activity into the daily routine, such as walking or cycling short journeys or integrating these activities with public transport, we will improve our health and reduce dependence on our cars."

He said that it would also reduce coronary heart disease, stroke, obesity, as well as improving mental health by reducing anxiety.

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