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Weighing in behind the battle of bulge

By Lisa Smyth

A host of MLAs have signed up to safefood’s eight-week programme to lose weight... as Telegraph gives away 70,000 tape measures to readers

Northern Ireland politicians and celebrities have thrown their weight behind efforts to tackle the serious health epidemic of obesity that threatens countless lives here.

Despite 60% of the population being classified as obese or overweight, research has found only 42% of people in Northern Ireland believe they have a problem with their weight.

Now a quarter of our MLAs are supporting a campaign to raise awareness of the health issues linked to being overweight.

Health committee chair Michelle Gildernew, deputy chair of the committee Jim Wells, Basil McCrea and Dominic Bradley are some of the MLAs taking part in a weigh-in at Stormont today to measure their success three weeks into an overhaul of their own personal health.

They will also be joined by radio presenter Stephen Nolan and journalist Eamonn Mallie.

Under the initiative launched by safefood — the body responsible for promoting healthy eating and food safety in Ireland — they have been limiting their calorie intake and increasing physical activity. The Belfast Telegraph is today joining forces with safefood and is giving away 70,000 tape measures to our readers to help them decide whether they need to take steps to address their weight.

According to the World Health Organisation, an increased waist size is associated with an increased risk of a range of killer conditions.

Dr Cliodhna Foley-Nolan, director of human health & nutrition at safefood, explained: “It is well known that carrying excess weight around the tummy is linked to an increased risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease and more recently cancer.

“By measuring our waist, we can each get an early warning about our weight and begin to take steps to address it.”

A major aim of the Stop the Spread campaign is to address the social contagion effect — where the chances of being obese are much more likely in a social circle either in a family or network of friends. Research has shown that the chance of a person becoming obese increased by 57% if they have a friend who is obese, while if one spouse is obese, the likelihood that the other spouse could be obese increases by 37%.

While the safefood campaign targets adults, it is hoped that by changing attitudes among older generations younger people will also begin to lead healthier lifestyles.

Dr Foley-Nolan added: “We’re all part of social networks and are influenced by the appearance and behaviour of those around us. Being overweight is now the norm and this norm is widespread in our communities throughout our families and friends.

“We need to stop the spread of this health epidemic by encouraging and motivating ourselves to take realistic steps to tackle any excess weight, and begin to live a healthier future.”

So what will the heavyweights be doing to shape up to fight the flab?

BBC presenter Stephen Nolan

“It'll be Christmas soon and that's when I usually replace the raspberry ruffles with mini eggs so I need to go on an immediate diet or I'll end up the biggest man in the country. So from now until Christmas I will be running up the hill of Stormont at least one morning a week before I get my lunch. Some politicians have offered to join me but I couldn't think of anything worse than seeing their fat faces first thing in the morning. I’ll reveal how much weight I’ve lost every week.”

Stormont health committee chair Michelle Gildernew

“I got involved because I understand the message safefood is trying to get across. People need to watch their diet and get more exercise and I suppose I thought it was important as chair of the health committee to do something. I’m carrying more weight than I would like, I’m about four-and-a-half stone heavier than I would like. I hope to lose a pound a week for the duration of the course; that will be about half a stone which will give me motivation to keep going. My problem is under-eating. I miss out on proper meals because I’m so busy.”

Lagan Valley UUP MLA Basil McCrea

“I have found this pretty difficult because I have had to overcome the urge to eat everything in sight. The first week was quite difficult but after I got past the initial desire to eat everything I am finding it a bit easier. I am taking part in more exercise and am being a bit more careful about what I eat.”

West Tyrone Sinn Fein MLA Barry McElduff

"I do a fair bit of exercise but my weakness is eating. Custard creams are a real weakness. My strategy for eating better is to try and eat well Monday to Friday and take a wee break on a Saturday and Sunday. I don’t think life should be boring. You can let yourself have a wee slip every now and again although I am finding my weekend starts on a Friday now. I’m a stone overweight. The first week I lost about 2lbs but I didn’t make last week’s weigh-in. I’ll be showing up for the next weigh-in more in hope than expectation."

Newry and Armagh SDLP MLA Dominic Bradley

“I had already begun a regime of healthy eating on my own. When I heard about the safefood initiative I thought it was an opportunity to take a stricter approach. I did consider myself a bit overweight and that I could do with losing some of it but I was also keen to improve my overall health. I do think it has been useful to be part of a group.”

East Belfast Alliance Party MLA Chris Lyttle

“From my perspective I have been an MLA for a year now and I have noticed it is difficult to eat properly or get exercise. We work unsociable hours and it has impacted on my ability to balance diet and get regular exercise so I thought this safefood initiative would help me address that. I am trying to lose about a pound a week and if I do that over the eight weeks then that will be a more acceptable weight for me.”

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