THE launch of the Isle of Man government’s plan to tackle the population’s increasing weight this week revealed the shocking figure that one in five of the island’s reception class aged children are overweight or obese.
Almost 20 per cent of Manx four- to five-year-olds are above the ‘healthy weight’ category, including 7.1 per cent considered obese.
The Health and Lifestyle Survey, conducted in 2009, also reported that 50.4 per cent of adults were overweight, with 15.9 per cent being obese.
The figures put the island on a par with the worst areas of the UK, itself one of the heaviest nations in Europe.
Dr Paul Emerson, consultant in public health medicine, said: ‘Obesity in childhood is associated with an increased risk of many diseases and conditions, such as type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, strokes, joint pain, eating disorders, depression and asthma.
‘When I arrived in the island, I could count on one hand the child cases of type 2 diabetes. This year we have dozens and dozens. That’s the impact in just a decade.’
Dr Emerson explained that weight issues have overtaken tobacco as the single biggest health concern in terms of cost, taking up 10 per cent of the island’s public health budget, and that figure is rising.
He estimated that 10 years ago one in 10 children were overweight, sharply rising to one in five in 2012, according to information collected by school nurses.
‘Why is it a problem? If society wants to see obesity as a normal and acceptable way to live, then we need to find a way to fund that, probably by raising taxes,’ said Dr Emerson. ‘There’s probably 800 people in the island now who would benefit from bariatric surgery, at around £15,000 to £20,000 each time. It’s a lot of money. Also a higher proportion of people who are obese can’t work or struggle to, and claim benefits.’
The data for the adult population uses Body Mass Index (BMI), which is a rough indication of body fat percentage, calculated using a person’s height and weight.
‘It’s not good if you have a high muscle mass, if you take into account sports people,’ admitted Dr Emerson. ‘But as an average population measure, it’s probably the best we have.’
The government plan is cross-departmental initiative to reduce prevalence in childhood through increasing physical activity levels, improving diets and by promoting the benefits of breast-feeding.
Minister for Health David Anderson said this was an important component of the strategy, and the aim is to try to increase the rate of breast-feeding for at least three months over the next five years.
This approach was endorsed by Dr Emerson. ‘Adults are almost a lost cause. We need to tackle it before it happens, that is why we hark back to breast-feeding and weening,’ he said.
‘The levels are very low here, less than 50 per cent of children are breast fed. Ideally it should be for six months, but even three months would be better than now. Maternity leave opens up this opportunity.’
He explained breast milk contains the ideal content nutritionally, and the increased bond with the mother can be important for future confidence and mental health.
‘It’s not just weight, we see less asthma in breast-fed babies, fewer ear infections, and less hospital admissions generally,’ said Dr Emerson.
Mr Anderson added: ‘We know that unhealthy diets and a lack of physical activity have contributed to the growth of childhood obesity in England and the trend is similar here in the island. Children’s lifestyles have become increasingly inactive, with them choosing entertainment such as television and computer games, instead of outdoor activities. When combined with dietary choices such as convenience foods, often high in fat and sugar, this means more children and young people are at risk of becoming overweight or obese.