Childhood obesity in Ireland: recent trends and modifiable determinants

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Keane, Eimear
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University College Cork
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Background: Childhood obesity is a global epidemic posing a significant threat to the health and wellbeing of children. To reverse this epidemic, it is essential that we gain a deeper understanding of the complex array of driving factors at an individual, family and wider ecological level. Using a social-ecological framework, this thesis investigates the direction, magnitude and contribution of risk factors for childhood overweight and obesity at multiple levels of influence, with a particular focus on diet and physical activity. Methods: A systematic review was conducted to describe recent trends (from 2002-2012) in childhood overweight and obesity prevalence in Irish school children from the Republic of Ireland. Two datasets (Cork Children’s Lifestyle [CCLaS] Study and the Growing Up in Ireland [GUI] Study) were used to explore determinants of childhood overweight and obesity. Individual lifestyle factors examined were diet, physical activity and sedentary behaviour. The determinants of physical activity were also explored. Family factors examined were parental weight status and household socio-economic status. The impact of food access in the local area on diet quality and body mass index (BMI) was investigated as an environmental level risk factor. Results: Between 2002 and 2012, the prevalence of childhood overweight and obesity in Ireland remained stable. There was some evidence to suggest that childhood obesity rates may have decreased slightly though one in four Irish children remained either overweight or obese. In the CCLaS study, overweight and obese children consumed more unhealthy foods than normal weight children. A diet quality score was constructed based on a previously validated adult diet score. Each one unit increase in diet quality was significantly associated with a decreased risk of childhood overweight and obesity. Individual level factors (including gender, being a member of a sports team, weight status) were more strongly associated with physical activity levels than family or environmental factors. Overweight and obese children were more sedentary and less active than normal weight children. There was a dose response relationship between time spent at moderate to vigorous physical activity (MVPA) and the risk of childhood obesity independent of sedentary time. In contrast, total sedentary time was not associated with the risk of childhood obesity independent of MVPA though screen time was associated with childhood overweight and obesity. In the GUI Study, only one in five children had 2 normal weight parents (or one normal weight parent in the case of single parent families). Having overweight and obese parents was a significant risk factor for overweight and obesity regardless of socio-economic characteristics of the household. Family income was not associated with the odds of childhood obesity but social class and parental education were important risk factors for childhood obesity. Access to food stores in the local environment did not impact dietary quality or the BMI of Irish children. However, there was some evidence to suggest that the economic resources of the family influenced diet and BMI. Discussion: Though childhood overweight and obesity rates appear to have stabilised over the previous decade, prevalence rates are unacceptably high. As expected, overweight and obesity were associated with a high energy intake and poor dietary quality. The findings also highlight strong associations between physical inactivity and the risk of overweight and obesity, with effect sizes greater than what have been typically found in adults. Important family level determinants of childhood overweight and obesity were also identified. The findings highlight the need for a multifaceted approach, targeting a range of modifiable determinants to tackle the problem. In particular, policies and interventions at the shared family environment or community level may be an effective mean of tackling this current epidemic.
Ireland , Childhood obesity , Diet , Physical activity , Childhood overweight , Lifestyle
Keane, E. 2014. Childhood obesity in Ireland: recent trends and modifiable determinants. PhD Thesis, University College Cork.
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