Mum's the word on obesity

Rates of overweight and obesity have been increasing both in Ireland and worldwide.

The figures are stark and are worth repeating - two-thirds of men and over half of women in Ireland are overweight and around a fifth of both sexes are now obese.

Obesity can lead to for diabetes, heart disease, stroke and a number of cancers so the increasing obesity rate is a major health concern for Government, the health service and the population at large.

Due to its impact on disease rates, obesity is also a contributor to growing health costs in Ireland.

Why are Irish people putting on weight? The reality is that we are consuming too many calories and not getting enough exercise largely because of changes in lifestyle over the last three decades.

There is often less opportunity for exercise - our jobs are now more sedentary and people tend to take less 'incidental' exercise through walking or cycling for transport.

And out diets are changing, and not usually for the better.

High calorie, fatty, sugary foods are now cheaper and more widely available than ever before, leading to more 'snacking' between meals than in the past.

Research shows that small changes in diet and exercise over a long period often lead to obesity. And importantly, research also tells us that some groups in the population are more at risk of weight gain than others.

Recently, Irish researchers Dr Michael Turner of UCD and Richard Layte of the ESRI looked at 11,134 women who took part in the Growing Up in Ireland Study,

This research has shown that there was a gradual increase in the risk of obesity with the number of children that a woman had given birth to, even adjusting for age and a large number of other factors.

Almost 16% of women were measured as being obese nine months after the birth of their first child but this risk rose by 7% after the birth of the second child.

By the third child, the risk had risen by 30% and for the fourth or subsequent child, by 63%.

The researchers point out that care of a new child can crowd out other activities like cooking proper meals and makes it more difficult to get some exercise.

This means that pregnancy and parenthood may well be a crucial period for the risk of future obesity and for later risk of serious disease and ill health.

The research showed that women in the lowest income group are 42% more likely to be obese than women in the highest income group.

However, while the risk of obesity drops for more affluent women when more children arrive, it tends to rise for women in the three lowest income groups 

Pregnancy-related obesity is not just a problem for mothers.

Other research based on the Growing Up in Ireland Study shows that excess weight gain in pregnancy and maternal obesity are strongly associated with the risk of child obesity.

Changes in diet and lifestyle may be central to the risk of obesity with parenthood but breastfeeding is also a significant issue.

Women who breastfeed for six months or more are 35% less likely to be obese than women who do not, even when you adjust for income and other factors.

Ireland has one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world. Even when Irish women do breastfeed the duration is shorter than in other countries: just over three months on average.

And unfortunately, breastfeeding tends to be a middle-class pursuit in Ireland. Less than one in three of women in the lowest income group breastfed their child and this contributes to their higher risk of obesity with pregnancy.

These findings have some important policy implications. First, pregnancy should be seen as an important period when health care professionals have the chance to engage with women and their partners to ensure both healthy weight gain in pregnancy and a healthy lifestyle thereafter.

In this sense pregnancy may be vital in the fight against obesity and overweight as it gives people the chance to assess their lifestyles and in so doing shape the long term health risks of all the family.

Secondly, the research, published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, suggests that greater involvement of male partners in antenatal care may be positive as partners influence each other’s lifestyles in terms of diet, exercise and smoking.

Thirdly, the research shows that health care professionals need to invest more time and effort with lower income, lower education couples who are at a greater risk of gaining weight.

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