That pot Kenny show on Newstalk. Now, as we are all aware, childhood obesity is on the rise, with currently between 20 to 25 percent of children in Ireland affected by overweight and obesity. Next week, the European Congress and Obesity and the International Congress on obesity is happening between the 1st to the fourth of September with a major focus on childhood obesity, how to prevent it, how to treat it, how to minimize its effects long term on health.
One of the speakers of the event is Dr. Mary Flynn, chief specialist on public health nutrition with the Food Safety Authority. And Mary is on the line. Mary. Good morning.
Good morning, Pat. Now, tell me this, is it getting worse or are we beating the obesity problem? Actually, it's good news.
In Ireland, we seem to be leveling off. We've probably the best example is the healthy Ireland approach where the whole of society needs to be involved in order to turn this around. It isn't a health systems problem. It's parenting. It's schools, it's workplaces. It's where we play. It's our built environment. It's our transport systems. It's absolutely everything. And that is the healthy Ireland approach is to make Ireland a healthier place to live, play, work.
And that impacts on childhood obesity because children are at a very sensitive stage even before they're born. You could say from pregnancy, from the moment of conception to eating and nutrition and activity and how you feel about yourself. Your mental health has long term impacts on your health when you're 50, 60. And we know, for example, if you deprive children of good nutrition at certain stages, you'll see there they don't attain their full potential. And we know that is a powerful predictor of cardiovascular disease and cancer and early mortality.
So that's why we're so concerned about children and children really just reflect the adults because 60 percent of adults are overweight. So we would it would be really unusual if if we didn't have a childhood obesity problem in that situation.
So basically, if a child has a problem, it is really down to the environment, whether it's the parental environment or other aspects of the environment.
You know, the child, him or herself cannot be held responsible.
Now, later on in life, if they don't do anything about a problem that accrues from childhood, they might take on some responsibility. But in childhood, it's those around them, those who care for them, those who feed them or not feed them, who have to take the rap for this.
And yes, but you can't certainly can't blame parents and not from because it mainly affects disadvantaged and disadvantaged people in our society are much more affected by illness and by obesity. And we've done some analysis to look at social welfare payments and look at children and look at families with children. And there just isn't enough money to provide enough food because healthy eating is actually more expensive. So we've done some analysis and that show, particularly when a child is a teenager and the amount of money that they get in child benefit and in social welfare only covers about 90 percent of their food costs.
Now, at that stage, when they're teenagers and every couple of months, they need new runners. They need you know, they're going out. Your clothes are going like weeds. But the reality is the teenage years are the most expensive to feed a human because you have a tremendous amount of growth and development and size.
Can deprivation of particular vitamins, for example, deprivation of appropriate protein or even calorific intake, can that actually affect long term how that physique is going to turn out?
Absolutely. And I just mentioned adolescence push back to adolescence, if you remind me, because I think the most frightening thing about nutrition during childhood is in the iron area, our nutrition. When a baby is born, the brain is about 25 percent of its adult size. By the time the child is three, it's 80 percent. And by the time the child is five, it's 90 percent of its adult size. So there's growth. There's a tremendous amount of development, growth and development.
We talk about this period as being a plastic period where if. You give adequate nutrition, all the organs were developed optimally, and if you're missing something, it can actually harm how that development goes.
And that's the lesson that the listeners are saying.
This is B.S. You see people buying chocolate bars, cans of minerals, crisps, burgers, chips and all the rest.
So they're spending lots of money on what you call junk food.
Now, if that's the way they've been brought up themselves, then it's all about education, trying to stop that in the parent before they pass it on to the kid.
And well, to be honest, if I was a disadvantaged mother and when I when we carried out the research, looking at trying to feed a family on the amount of money and we actually shopped, we did a shopping list in budget supermarkets like the lower cost supermarkets, the average supermarket and the corner shop. And you were definitely much worse off if you were depending on the corner shop and you were best off if you could have if you had a car to transport you to the lower cost outlets, although they're becoming more in urban in areas where people live.
But and you literally just haven't got enough money for calories. So, of course, the cheaper foods like what you just mentioned, the high salt, high fat, high sugar, the kind of signals where buy one, get an extra one free or the bigger size, pizza is cheaper than the smaller size one. And you've got you've actually got hunger, hunger like one in five Irish children. And some research shows go to bed hungry. So it's a no child if ah, no parent.
And you can bear that. So quite frankly, if it was my children and I was very socioeconomically disadvantaged and I would probably end up with the frying pan and find that cheaper calories, it's more expensive to have and the better type of foods. If you put me in that situation because I have a tremendous amount of cooking skills and education about nutrition, I would manage I would go to beans and eggs and I'd probably have very little red meat and and I would go for cheaper fish.
But that's because I know and food security is about providing people with food that is acceptable.
So and on the one hand, I just want to clarify here, we're talking about obesity, and yet you're talking about kids going to bed hungry.
So like here we have an inherent contradiction. It would appear that you've got people who don't get enough calories and other people are getting fat.
So how is it if people are not getting enough calories, that they're getting fat, they're going to bed hungry, and so they end up with a lot more high fat, high salt, high sugar foods because they're cheap? That's a cheap form of calories. And it does tremendous harm in terms of obesity prevention, because during childhood, if you don't develop a taste, particularly in those years before you get to school and in those early years of school, you need to develop an acceptance for the flavours in fruit and vegetables and the high sugar, high fat foods override that.
Those foods are totally processed. They're not natural and they're geared at tremendous research, goes into how they look colorways, that texture, how they feel in the mouth and the flavours to make them almost addictive. So if you give a child those type of foods, you are overriding any curiosity or any acceptance of the different flavors of white, strong, bitter flavors in some fruit and vegetables. So, you know, it's a it's a very complex story.
So it's not about blame.
But hang on a second. You know, kids, teenagers, whatever, they don't seem to have any difficulty in developing a taste, say, for a pint just out, which is a bitter thing.
Do you know what I mean?
Like, people can learn later in life to embrace new flavors. Some of the, you know, more exotic foods that are made by ethnic outlets, for example, are very much an acquired taste, you know, in terms of heat and the rest of it.
And and young adults can develop a taste for those and know it's not that you stop learning. No, absolutely.
I totally agree. But I have met children. It's very hard when you're faced with a child who's or even a teenager or even adults, we eat very little fruit and vegetables. That is a very. Difficult situation to turn around. Do you think it's as simple as as, you know, people actually not knowing what to do with the carrot or some to do much with a potato and potatoes relatively cheap?
God knows we subsisted on them prior to the famine and all the rest of it, especially if you eat the skins as well.
You get your vitamin C and all the rest of it.
Is it that people would look many people look helplessly around at the fruit and veg section in the supermarket and literally not know what to do with a clump of broccoli or whatever.
Well, it's partly partly cooking skills and it's partly the Acceptability Act, but it's also about the price because and we priced and the fruit and vegetable Shabaz was one of the most expensive in terms of providing an adequate amount of calories because they're low calorie foods and the cheapest thing to fruit and veg for calories.
No, you're going to that's not part of your you know, the food pyramid design and so on.
It's not for calories. You eat a carrot. No, you eat maybe a potato for calories or bread for calories of, you know, those kind of things.
What we used to call stodge eat those four calories you eat, you know, meats for protein and eggs for protein pulses and so on.
So it's not calories that you're going for when you're going for the fruit and veg country, I probably should say overall nutritional requirements.
Of course, when we did when we shopped and we picked the cheapest foods, we barely covered the needs of families. So there's no room for any kind of party. And, you know, it's it would take a lot of work and a lot of skills to be able to and exist and have enough food. And incertain, if you were limited to a cornershop, you actually wouldn't quite meet your requirements. And so and then we did an analysis and found that the high sugar, high fat foods, processed foods are far cheaper.
So that's the scenario that the pressure people are under. And there are two things going on here.
One is that these so-called junk foods, high fat, high sugar, high salt foods, you know, people become addicted to the flavors because they are very seductive. But you are getting a lot of calories there in in these foods.
So if you subsist on these, you will ultimately put on weight.
But equally, you know, a starving teenager, if they go in and get a cheeseburger and fries, they're going to be satisfied.
I mean, they're going to get their calorie intake there, aren't they?
Exactly. And that's the problem is that that's the way we're shifting. There's there's a pressure there if you have less food. But there's other aspects, like even in foods that are part of healthy eating guidelines, like our breakfast cereals and our yogurts. And we did research which shows people really have to look at the labels to be able to pick out and, you know, the lower sugar varieties, the high fiber.
So that traffic light system, which many people have recommended, you know, that it's red if it's high in various things and orange if it's OK and green if it's absolutely wonderful.
But it does depend on what you're looking for.
I mean, if you're looking for a high calorie food and it has a red label on it because it has too many calories, but that's precisely what you're looking for, probably.
Exactly. Or now, in fact, there is a new labelling system coming in to try and make it easier. And it's been shown to be more easily understood if you're in a rush or even by people who haven't as much education. And that'll just give one overall color to cover everything. So it could be the best choice. And, you know, and it's a kind of a spectrum. But at what is happening is that we are managing to put pressure on the food industry and to not have such high sugar, high fat foods in among the yogurts and the breakfast cereals, for example, because they're like in there are foods that are high in fiber that are good choices.
But the problem is there's a luxury brand, if you like. That's what it's called coming in. So there is a process that is happening in Europe and here in Ireland called reformulation, where we're looking at we did a snapshot in the of the state of play in yogurts in Syria. And we're going to do another snapshot. And the industry, the food industry, have undertaken to reduce the amount of sugar and fat and salt in products. So they'll be held to account on that.
And that's not just happening in Ireland. That's your Europe and. Right.
Well, Mary, I can tell you that our listeners are greatly engaged in this particular discussion, but we will leave it there for the moment. Our Dr Mary Flynn, chief specialist on public health nutrition with the Food Safety Authority of Ireland. Thank you very much for joining us.