Representation in Ireland

The EU and Healthy Eating

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Children given fruit to eat
One in four Irish children is overweight or obese, putting them at a higher risk of bullying, poor mental health and chronic illness throughout life.

It’s a worrying statistic and while most of us know a balanced, nutritious diet is crucial in maintaining a healthy lifestyle, the message doesn’t always get through.

Studies show that Irish pre-school children are exposed to over 1,000 ads for unhealthy foods every year and 18% of children’s calories, as well as 21% of their fat intake, comes from biscuits, snacks or confectionary.

Changing eating habits is difficult, and that’s why the European Union is taking action to encourage Ireland’s younger generation to develop healthy eating routines so they can enjoy long lives, free from the many illnesses and diseases caused by obesity.

Key statistics from Health Behaviour in School-aged Children Ireland (HBSC) show:

  • When it comes to sugar-sweetened drinks, 27% of children consume daily while 13% eat sweets at least once a day.
  • The proportion of children who report never eating breakfast on weekdays is 13%
  • One in every five children (21%) sometimes goes to school or bed hungry.
  • Overall, 16% of children report trying to lose weight.
     

Milk, fruit and vegetables

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Children drinking milk
The European Union actively encourages healthy eating in young people by reaching out directly to schools through the EU School Milk and Fruit and Vegetables Schemes.

The School Milk Scheme began in 1977 and it encourages consumption of healthy dairy products containing important vitamins and minerals.

Under the Scheme, the EU subsidises the cost of milk products for children in participating Montessori, national and secondary schools.

The Milk Scheme was rolled out in Ireland in 1982 and is primarily managed through the National Dairy Council. There are over 1,000 participating schools in Ireland benefitting more than 50,000 pupils.

In 2009 the School Fruit and Vegetables Scheme was introduced to help tackle falling consumption of these vital foods amongst children and address rising obesity levels in Europe.

As well as providing subsidised fruit and vegetables, the scheme requires participating Member States to set up strategies that include educational and awareness-raising initiatives.

In Ireland, the scheme is run by Bord Bia as part of the fun and innovative Food Dudes programme that helps children develop a taste for fruit and vegetables.

The Food Dudes are four superhero role models, who gain special powers by eating their favourite fruit or vegetable so they can save the world from a gang of baddies called Junk Punks.

Research has shown the programme is effective and has long lasting results in primary school children. Findings from an evaluation of 86 participating Irish schools carried out by UCD found consumption of fruit increased by 20% and vegetables by 42%.

Independent surveys also found that 92% of parents and 99% of teachers said children liked or enjoyed the programme.

The most recent statistics from the Health at a Glance: Europe 2016 report show that Irish children are amongst the top EU nations when it comes to eating fruit and vegetables.

Girls in Belgium most commonly ate vegetables daily (61%), followed by Denmark, Ireland and the Netherlands (45-50%). Belgium also led the way for boys (52%), with 41% in Ireland and close to 40% in France, Malta and the Netherlands.

Overall, boys in Denmark, Ireland, Luxembourg and Portugal, and girls in Austria, Denmark, Ireland and Italy had the highest rates of daily fruit consumption.

Food Dudes has been extended for the 2016/17 school year to reinforce the enjoyment of fresh fruit and vegetables as part of healthy eating.

The total cost of the programme is €2.5 million, with the EU budget contributing €1.3 million.

From August, 1, 2017, the School Fruit and vegetables Scheme and the School Milk Scheme will come together under a single legal framework.

This will bring greater efficiency, more focused support and an enhanced educational dimension.

Europe’s battle with obesity

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Young people exercising on a beach
In Europe today, six of the seven biggest risk factors for premature death – blood pressure, cholesterol, body mass index, inadequate intake of fruit, obesity and being overweight - are rising.

The European Commission is pushing for an integrated approach at local, regional, national and European level to tackle the problem.

As well as developing policies that support nutritious foods the EU promotes healthy eating through initiatives such as the EU Youth Strategy and the EU Action Plan on Childhood Obesity.

Around 7% of national health budgets across the EU are spent on diseases linked to obesity that are estimated to cause 2.8 million deaths a year.

The Action Plan sets out measures that support a healthy start in life and promote healthier environments, especially in schools and preschools.

There are also initiatives to restrict marketing and advertising of ‘junk’ foods for children, inform and empower families and encourage physical activity.

The Youth Strategy puts a focus on lifestyle factors and aims to support the prevention of eating disorders, addictions and substance abuse.

It also promotes education on nutrition as well as cooperation between schools, youth workers, health professionals and sport organisations to support overall health in young people.

In Ireland, results from the Children’s Sport Participation and Physical Activity (CSPPA) Study show only 19% of children (aged 10-12) and 12% of adolescents (12-18) reach the recommended levels of physical activity for health.

The statistics published in an EU factsheet on health-enhancing physical activity in Ireland also show that girls were less likely than boys to meet the recommended physical activity levels.

The Youth Strategy also promotes sport, physical activity and making health facilities more accessible and attractive for young people.