The study – by Dr Janas Harrington of University College Cork (UCC) – has proposed tough new measures to protect the health of future generations.
Ireland now has one of the fastest rising rates of childhood obesity in the world.
One in five Irish children are now considered to be obese, with the surge in weight-related health issues at near-epidemic levels.
Some 300,000 Irish children are now considered clinically obese and that figure is expected to rise by 10,000 per annum unless firm action is taken.
The UCC study found Ireland was falling behind best international policy implementation.
It recommended five major policy changes including:
- ‘no-fry zones’ within 400 metres of primary and secondary schools;
- nutritional standards for schools, including what is sold in tuck shops;
- establishment of a committee to monitor and evaluate food-related income support programmes for vulnerable population groups;
- ring-fencing of tax on unhealthy food to subsidise healthy options for disadvantaged groups in the community;
- implementation of a comprehensive policy on nutrition standards for food and beverage provision in the public sector.
Dr Harrington said Ireland must overhaul the entire “food environment” – ranging from food production, processing and marketing to distribution.
The study also highlighted issues around food marketing, particularly the promotion of unhealthy foods to children via packaging.
The first Irish Healthy Food Environment Policy Index (Food-EPI) highlighted how Ireland compared poorly with other countries when it comes to rolling out initiatives such as so-called ‘no-fry zones’, school food policies and measures aimed at reducing the marketing of unhealthy food to children in the media and online.
The Food-EPI will now serve as a benchmark for monitoring the nation’s health and food lifestyle.
It was conducted as part of a wider European project in collaboration with research groups from countries such as the Netherlands, Norway, Germany, Poland and New Zealand.
“The Government needs to seize an opportunity to improve the diets of the Irish population, prevent obesity and diet-related non-communicable diseases by investing in the kind of policies and programmes which have demonstrated success in a number of countries,” explained Dr Harrington.
“The benefits are two-fold – aside from improving the health of the general population, these measures are highly cost-effective, and in the long-run can help counteract the rising healthcare costs associated with obesity and diet-related-non communicable diseases.”
The study was conducted between January 2018 and June 2020 with an expert panel from academia, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, Safefood, the HSE and various charities.
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