Belfast Telegraph

Sustained campaign only way to fight weight issues

The obesity epidemic is too big a problem to load onto the health service. Community empowerment holds the key, says Tom Black

In Northern Ireland 59% of adults are either overweight (36%) or obese (23%). This is causing a huge increase in chronic diseases such as arthritis, heart disease and diabetes.

The most worrying aspect to this epidemic is that it's affecting our children, as well, and they will become obese adults who can expect to lose 10 years of their lifespan.

The causes of obesity are well-known and simple to understand: we are eating too much and taking too little exercise.

The Health Minister, Edwin Poots, announced the launch of A Fitter Future For All in an effort to tackle this problem by encouraging better diets and more exercise.

This is laudable, but we need to be careful that people don't think that their obesity problem is there for someone else to fix.

Obesity is a difficult problem to deal with in general practice, as patients don't want to be preached to. It has become acceptable to advise against excess alcohol and cigarettes, but making a reference to a patient's weight is a very touchy subject.

Therein lies the problem.The only way I could use the word 'fat' in this article would be to put it in front of the word 'doctor', because it's such a touchy subject.

And, of course, doctors now are very rarely fat. I was at a conference of GPs recently and they all looked like the finalists in a slimming competition.

In all, 25% of over 50-year-olds here are now obese and, in some ways, it's an expression of free will - if, that is, you want to be the victim of chronic diseases and die 10 years younger.

I know it's very difficult to lose weight and, to some extent, we are all victims of the fast food/ready meal culture and we travel everywhere by car.

But we need to move from a victim mentality to one of empowerment and to do so we need to change our diet and our lifestyle.

We owe it to our children, in particular, with 8% of 2-15-year-olds being obese and 26% overweight. It is estimated that, by 2020, one-in-five boys and one-in-three girls will be obese.

So what's the solution? Let's begin with diet. Start with your shopping trolley - buy fruit, vegetables, high-fibre cereals, rice, chicken and fish.

Don't buy high-fat, processed, high-sugar foods. You know which ones they are, because they're very tasty (and usually more expensive).

Two cream fingers for breakfast, crisps and a chocolate bar for lunch and a takeaway for dinner is not a good diet. And, no, I didn't have to make this up.

Food education should be compulsory in schools. Food labelling will help the public understand what is healthy and what will cause weight-gain.

Exercise is the second part of the equation and we should focus on the needs of children; where sport and exercise can be promoted at school and in communities. Access to community sports facilities needs to be subsidised.

Education and information is the third part of the challenge. Families should be educated and empowered through guidance to show them how much impact good habits of eating and activity can have on a child's development.

There needs to be a sustained public education campaign to improve parents' and children's understanding of the benefits of healthy living. There is already a lot of excellent work going on in the community and voluntary sector. Obesity is too big a problem to load onto our health service, which is already struggling to cope with the present levels of ill-health and disease. Empowerment of local communities is the way forward.

If you want to make a start, write down what you ate today; healthy foods in one column and the cream fingers and sweets in a second.

Then write down how much exercise you've taken today. How did you do? Can you do better tomorrow?

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