The prevalence of overweight and obesity among primary school children has stabilised in recent years, however one in five is still overweight or obese, with girls more affected than boys, new research has found.
The findings are contained in the latest Childhood Obesity Surveillance Initiative (COSI) survey. This is the fifth such survey carried out in Ireland since 2008 as part of the WHO-EU Childhood Obesity Surveillance Initiative.
Over 5,700 children in 1st, 2nd, 4th and 6th class were surveyed between October 2018 and January 2019.
The survey found that overall, 75% of children were a normal weight and 6% were underweight. A further 15% were overweight, while 4% were obese - a total of 19%, or one in five, who were carrying excess weight.
A breakdown of the classes showed that in 1st class, 16% were overweight or obese and this increased to 17% in 2nd class and 22% in 4th class, before dropping slightly to 21% in 6th class.
Overall, overweight and obesity was more prevalent in girls than boys (21% vs 17%), however this was more so the case in the younger ages. For example, 21% of girls in 2nd class were overweight or obese compared to 14% of boys. However by 6th class, this gap had narrowed to 22% of girls and 21% of boys.
Overweight and obesity was also found to be more prevalent in disadvantaged (DEIS) schools, especially among the older groups. For example, 25% of children in 1st class of DEIS schools were overweight or obese compared to 15% of children in non-DEIS schools.
By 6th class, this figure had risen to 38% in DEIS schools, compared to 19% in other schools.
The survey highlighted that all schools were free from vending machines and nine out of 10 were free from marketing/advertising of energy-dense and nutrient-poor foods and beverages.
Furthermore, almost all schools included nutrition education in their curriculum, while nine out of 10 schools had no sugar-sweetened beverages or sweet/savoury snacks available.
Meanwhile, all schools included PE in the curriculum, all had outdoor play areas and 77% had access to an indoor gym area.
The co-author of the report on the findings was Sarah O'Brien, the HSE's national lead for the Healthy Eating Active Living Policy Priority Programme.
She said that it is important to understand that obesity "is not about a person's size or shape".
"A healthy weight for all children is important because we know that the consequences of childhood overweight and obesity can be lifelong, affecting quality of life and health both in childhood and adulthood.
"While the downward trend evident for children in early primary school years is very positive, the difference in prevalence evident for girls and those children attending designated disadvantaged schools is of concern," she commented.
However, she noted that the survey illustrates that the environment in Irish schools is "largely positive to supporting healthy eating and physical activity".
"There is a clear need to ensure that policies and actions to support children and families address the wider obesogenic environment our children live in," Ms O'Brien added.
According to Prof Cecily Kelleher of UCD, who leads the researchers working on the Irish arm of COSI, the health of our children "largely predicts the health of our future adult population".
"We know that childhood obesity is largely preventable through effective policies that can intervene early to create environments and behaviours that support healthy growth and development for all children. Robust population surveillance efforts like COSI are a valuable means of accessing our progress and the impact of these interventions over time," she said.
The latest COSI findings can be viewed here.
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