As we face a difficult economic climate, in which inequalities may worsen, the PHA faces many challenges in its efforts to improve the health of the population. One such challenge is the issue of obesity. Recently, in the Draft Programme for Government and, again today, in anticipation of the publication of the Consultation on the Review of Health and Social Care Services in Northern Ireland, the specific issue of obesity has been highlighted in the media.
The PHA is committed to playing a lead role in tackling this major health issue and has been systematically examining the evidence of best practice and effectiveness to ensure that investment and working in partnership will bring clear benefits. A welcome consequence of any success would be a reduction in the impact of the physical, and emotional costs of obesity related ill-health to individuals – and the financial costs to an overstretched healthcare system.
The prevalence of overweight and obesity has risen dramatically in recent years in Northern Ireland and is now the norm to be overweight, rather than the exception. The Northern Ireland Health and Social Wellbeing Survey (2010-11) indicated that 36% of adults are overweight and a further 23% are obese; this means that approximately 3 in 5 adults in Northern Ireland carry excess weight. A similar proportion of males and females were obese (23%) however males were more likely to be overweight (44%) than females (30%).
Data from the Northern Ireland Health and Wellbeing Survey (2010-11) reported that 27% of children aged 2-15 years are obese or overweight. The findings presented here are based on the guidelines put forward by the International Obesity Task Force. Using this approach, 8% of children were assessed as obese, with similar results for boys (8%) and girls (9%).
Obesity has serious implications for health and wellbeing and is associated with an increased risk of heart disease and stroke, type 2 diabetes, some cancers, respiratory problems and joint pain.
Evidence indicates that being obese can reduce life expectancy by up to 9 years; and it can impact on emotional and psychological well-being and self-esteem, especially among young people.
Obesity also impacts on wider society through economic costs, loss of productivity and increased demands on our health and social care system. It is estimated that obesity in Northern Ireland is resulting in 260,000 working days lost each year with a cost to the local economy of £500 million.
The good news is that the intentional loss of significant weight (approx 10kg) in overweight and obese adults has been shown to confer significant health benefits, decreased morbidity and may also reduce obesity-related mortality.
Key programmes and interventions are undertaken by the PHA in order to prevent and reduce overweight and obesity. The programmes/interventions are supported by significant ongoing work at local level. Examples include:
- the promotion of breastfeeding;
- local programmes to increase awareness of good nutrition and develop cooking skills, for example ‘Cook It!’;
- promotion of more active lifestyles, for example, Walking for Health’ and ‘Teenage Kicks’;
- development of community allotment schemes;
- programmes for primary school children, for example Skip2bfit and Eat, Taste and Grow; and
- sports and other recreation, for example ‘Active Belfast’.
The PHA’s multi media campaign ‘It all adds up!’ to encourage children to become more active and understand the importance of keeping fit, in a fun and exciting way, ran until October 2011. It encouraged parents and carers to go to the website www.getalifegetactive.com and download the PHA logbook It all adds up! to plan activities as a family. The logbook helped children and parents plan and keep track of their participation in physical activity at school, home and in the community.
PHA is currently developing a public information campaign and other supportive work to increase public awareness of obesity as well as to provide advice and support for those who want to make real changes. The campaign development is well underway and is anticipated for launch in late Spring 2012.
Like many common health problems, people living in disadvantaged circumstances suffer most and the PHA is committed to tackling this aspect of health inequality. The good news is that even a modest weight loss, of 1-1 ½ stones, can help to reduce the risk of many of the health problems resulting from being overweight or obese. Information on losing weight through healthier eating and being more active can be found on the PHA websites – www.enjoyhealthyeating.info and www.getalifegetactive.com . These websites provide help and advice for anyone who wants to improve their eating habits and fitness levels, by making small, sustainable, healthy changes to their lifestyle. The PHA leaflet, Small changes, big benefits is also available to download from the PHA website, ‘Publications’ section.