For anyone who has first-hand experience of the debilitating effects of diabetes – particularly in the old – a survey this week which reveals the prevalence of obesity in children makes disturbing reading.

The link between obesity and diabetes is clear. It seems the nation is eating its way to an epidemic. So before you sneak a last seasonal super-sized Twix or go for seconds at the Christmas party, stop and think about what is happening to us: Ireland is bloating.

A survey of six-year-olds in the west, which was published in this paper on Monday [1], showed weight problems were worse than previously thought. While every third person in Ireland is known to be overweight, and one in eight of us are obese (these figures include more than 300,000 children nationwide who suffer from the twin problems), the new research reveals that children are eating their way to a life of serious health problems at a younger age than ever before.

The survey of senior infants in Mayo’s national schools shows 27pc of them are either obese or overweight. That compares with a Europe-wide figure for five to 17-year-olds of less than 20pc. Broken down, the Mayo survey reveals that girls (30pc) are more prone than boys (25pc) to putting on excessive weight.

However, according to the study, the group most at risk of being overweight and having obesity is six-year-old boys whose families hold a medical card.

This class/wealth finding is crucial and tallies with the suggestion that obesity is now the disease of the poor. Anecdotally, the evidence for this proposition is everywhere.

Growing up in Dun Laoghaire in the 1980s, I remember all the hard men were sinewy, scrawny lads, hence the local description “more meat on a seagull”. The reason was simple: they were undernourished. Perched on the church wall in the town were skinny, arseless lads, spitting and smoking Majors. The ‘young wans’, despite having had a couple of babies, were more or less the same: pinched, flat-chested and drawn.

Today, Dun Laoghaire’s hard men are fat. Rolls of flab strain the Liverpool away strip. Double chins are de rigueur and little piggy eyes are squeezed into sockets among the flab. Gravity has also got the better of the young wans, as their corpulent bums, like two puppies fighting in a bag, make unsightly bids for freedom over their ultra low-rise jeans.

According to the national task force on obesity – which gives the nod to the Mayo survey – 30pc of Irish women are overweight and a further 12pc are obese, while nearly half of Irish adult males are overweight and 14pc are obese. Even our babies are born bigger. We are turning into a race of Sumo wrestlers with 20pc of our infants, weighing more than 10 pounds when they were delivered – a four-fold rise on the same figure in 1990.

Is this any surprise when we spend more on crisps than on pharmaceutical drugs?

According to the latest household budget survey [2], our spending on chip shops and takeaways went up by over 70pc in the past seven years. We also doled out more than 50pc extra on sweets, while we spent 42pc more on soft drinks. We spent €721m on the teeth-rotting fizzy drinks last year, almost twice as much as we did on calcium enhancing milk. Is it any wonder that diabetes is the fastest growing disease in the country when our Kit Kat and Snickers bill alone per year dwarfs our total spending on organic food?

And as the Mayo survey indicated, nationally, it is the poor who are getting fatter quickest. Only 8pc of university graduates are obese, whereas close to one in five of those who left school before the Junior Cert are supersized.

In the past, fatness was a sign of wealth, education and privilege. In contrast, the poor were skinny. These days, the rich are thin. The problem now is that there are signs of an epidemic emerging.

Some 27pc of 11-year-old Irish boys and 29pc of Irish girls are overweight, and little girls aged between five and eight are ballooning quicker than boys. One in three is overweight. We go from toddlers to waddlers in a shockingly short period. And, more worryingly, 11pc of Irish seven-year-old girls are obese.

The level of obesity in our children is making them unhappy, with one in five of 11-year-old boys and girls saying they are dissatisfied with their weight. This figure rises to over one in three by the time the girls are aged 13. Twenty percent of our fifth class girls are on diets, literally starving themselves, while a recent survey of Dublin schoolgirls reveals one in five of them said smoking was part of their dieting strategy. As for exercise, well it’s not surprising they are dieting because they are not getting out. Ireland has the highest proportion of houses with Sony Playstations, at an amazing 41pc, while levels of DVD and video rental are three times higher per head here than in Britain.

So if they are not fasting, starving, watching TV, glued to the Playstation or smoking, they are eating, gorging and expanding. This carry-on is now being blamed for the dramatic rise in diabetes in Ireland according to the Diabetes Federation [3] which predicts that the incidence of disease here will have doubled by 2010. “Diabetes treatment accounts for an estimated 10pc of the total Healthcare budget, costing the Exchequer approximately €444m annually,” it says.

If that figure sounds big, let me put it into context – we spend more than this each year on diabetes-enhancing, refined sugar-based products such as Coke, Dairy Milk chocolate and Tayto crisps.Diabetes is the disease of the future.

But it won’t happen to you. So go on, have another morsel. It’s Christmas after all.


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