Obesity in Ireland is a major problem. One that is not just linked to genetic disorders or bad diets, but is a direct result of inequalities within different socio-economic groups and an indirect result of the socialisation of different lifestyles. The World Health Organisation defines overweight and obesity as ‘abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that may impair health that is measured by a person’s body mass index (BMI)’. BMI is a simple index which compares height with weight to identify overweight and obesity in adults. Obesity and overweight issues can cause problems throughout the life cycle and cause other major health issues. Although many efforts have been made to tackle the issue such as state regulations and awareness campaigns, it still remains a dominant issue in Ireland.

Simon Harris states that obesity is one of the biggest public health challenges facing Ireland today, stating that within the last two decades the levels of overweight and obesity have doubled, meaning only 40% of the population are within a healthy weight. The Department of Health found that obesity in men has risen from 8% in 1990 to 26% in 2011 and in women from 13% to 21%. Those who fall into the overweight category are also at risk of developing many other conditions, such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes. This can become detrimental for children. The HSE found, in 2015, that 1 in 5 children were overweight or obese.  This exposes the children to a variety of health problems that are likely to persist throughout their lives thus lowering their quality of life. Obesity levels also tend to be higher in people of lower socioeconomic backgrounds. A   study conducted by the HSE shows that children who attend DEIS schools tend to have a higher rate of obesity with one finding that 21.7% of children in first class in DEIS school are overweight compared to 16.5% in other schools. Data for other classes in the HSE study can be seen in the figure.    

This creates the common question of indirect and direct causes that many sociological researchers ask when looking at complex social issues such as obesity. They look at what these causes are, and the social factors that may be related to them. Many find that there are many social indirect and direct links especially regarding obesity although some links are easily explained, some have been further studied. The more direct links tend to be easier to explain such as gender. Male and female bodies distribute fat differently thus directly linking obesity and gender.  Doctor Cecilia Lindgren explains that women tend to be slightly more obese than men due to female body fat patterning. They tend to aggregate more fat around the stomach area which is an area focused on when measuring BMI. Other important social factors that sociologist consider, include a person’s level of income and/or education. Income and education play a very important role in relation to an individual’s diet. Studies have shown that more educated individuals tend to live a healthier lifestyle compared to those who are less education. This is because they tend to be more aware of the consequences a bad diet and an unhealthy lifestyle can have on their health.  Therefore, education is a key social factor of obesity as it gives an individual the information needed to make changes in their lives to maintain a healthy diet and lifestyle.

Similar to education, income also has a direct influence on diet in regard to what an individual can afford. A study told in the Irish Independent by Caroline Crawford portrayed that children growing up in low-income have double the chance of becoming obese. Therefore, depending an individual’s income it can dictate what a person may feel is an appropriate amount to spend on food in relation to what they earn. In many of these cases, healthier options tend to be more expensive and for some a luxurious option. Therefore, the socio-economic group an individual may be apart can directly affect their diet and obesity levels also.

But is obesity just a health issue or have great social issues attached? It is proven that obesity can seriously damage the way people socialize, especially children. In 2008 the “Centres for Disease and Prevention” stated that almost 20 percent of adolescents younger than 19 were considered obese and facing emotional social side effects. Obesity therefore evidently leads to poor social skills, with children commonly being targets of bullying and falling victim to depression and anxiety. A study was published in the “Paediatrics” journal in 2010 focusing on the trends of childhood obesity and bullying. The study showed that obesity increases the chances of bullying by up to 63%. Bullying can have serious effects on a child’s mental state, resulting to social withdrawal meaning a decrease in performance in both social interactions, classroom participation, and school attendance levels. Thus, affecting your overall self-esteem and day to day life, ultimately leading to a poor development of social skills, in comparison to their peers. As a result of, children suffering from obesity also tend to suffer from low self-esteem and confidence, creating a feeling of isolation and social stigma induced by bullying. Each of these issues damaging mentally, making it hard to cope in a social context creating a cycle of even more weight gain. Although most studies on these issues have focused on children it is also prevalent in adults and a major indirect linkage with obesity in all genders and age groups.

But if obesity in Ireland is such a problem then what has the Irish Government done to tackle it? In 2016 the minister for health Simon Harris launched “A Healthy Weight for Ireland: Obesity Policy and Action Plan 2016-2025”. This plan outlines key actions to be taken out over the course of these years to tackle obesity. These steps include a calorie posting legislation, the introduction of a sugar tax levy (which will come into place in 2018) and the development of a nutrition policy. According to a study conducted by Bryan Bollinger, Phillip Leslie, Alan Sorensen, calorie posting may have an effect on consumption but none on revenue. The research was conducted using data from Starbucks before and after the legislation came in. Overall the study found that the average calories decreased by 6% per transaction. This research bodes well for the Government as it shows that they may be able to tackle obesity without influencing the economy. However, the same cannot be said for the introduction of sugar tax. Canadean have found that in France for example the introduction of sugar tax has had little effect on obesity levels. They found that in 2015 soft-drink consumption was 4.2% higher than it was in 2011, the year before the tax was introduced. This is an issue that will need to be monitored throughout the introduction of sugar tax in Ireland. Although the Government has shown its intentions
to tackle obesity head on, it has also shown that some of the actions it intends to introduce may not actually be viable options for reducing obesity. Therefore, they must take notes of the failures and achievements of this ongoing plan and use the results to keep striving to fight obesity.

Obesity is a problem: one that has come about through inequalities such as education and income. It  not only poses health problems, but can also lead to bullying and alienation. However, while there does exist a clear issue of obesity, the Government and TD Simon Harris are putting in place measures to resolve it.

Kimberley Hogan, Ume-Farwah Zahidi, Mark Guilfoyle, Sarah O’Loughlin, Anna Jibukhaia