Kids flying kite in a park

Green spaces and safe neighbourhoods could help tackle overweight and obesity

  • Research

Obesity is a modern day health crisis. A recent report from the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated that by 2025, obesity prevalence would increase in 44 out of 53 countries in the WHO European region.

Of these, Ireland is estimated to have the highest prevalence of obesity, with 43% of the population projected to be obese by 2025. Currently, 25% of Irish children are classified as overweight or obese.

Evidence shows that a high percentage of obesity has its roots in childhood. It is estimated that 55% of obese children will be obese in adolescence while 80% of obese adolescents will be obese in adulthood. Furthermore, children of low socioeconomic position families are at disproportionately higher risk of being obese compared with their more affluent peers.

It is vital to understand what factors impact on overweight and obesity in order to tackle the obesity crisis. A review of research undertaken across 38 member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), including USA and Australia, resulted in the identification of certain modifiable risk factors related to socioeconomic differences in overweight and obesity outcome in youth.

Such factors included early life experiences: breastfeeding, early weaning, smoking in pregnancy, child dietary behaviours (particularly the eating of sugar-sweetened food/drink and breakfast eating patterns), child sedentary behaviour (particularly television watching and computer use) and the mother’s Body Mass Index (BMI).

Culture, living conditions and obesity

Based on this previous research, a new review from the RCSI School of Population Health analysed peer-reviewed research that had previously been published between 2011-2021 relating to socio-economic position and obesity outcomes in the youth of Ireland and the UK only. The aim was to understand if the culture and living conditions experienced by youth in Ireland and the UK would result in different outcomes to those in the broader OECD countries.

The RCSI research confirmed the evidence that early life experiences were significantly associated with the socioeconomic differentials seen in obesity and overweight outcomes in youth in Ireland and the UK. The review concludes that the modification of these risk factors may help reduce this differential.

The review also found a relationship between place or neighbourhoods and obesity indicating that in Ireland and the UK, families with a lower socioeconomic position living in either the most disadvantaged or most affluent areas were at greater risk of obesity. The reviewers suggest that this could indicate a relationship between the lack of access to local amenities in more disadvantaged areas and/or the high cost of amenities in more affluent areas.

The review also found that those living in neighbourhoods that were unsafe, were at greater risk of overweight and obesity due to the decreased rate of child activity, such as walking to school.

Conducted by RCSI in collaboration with Trinity College Dublin and funded by the Health Research Board, the findings will help to inform policy and future interventions targeting disadvantaged children and their families and tackle the growing obesity problem in Ireland and the UK.

The results of the review entitled ‘Mediators of socio-economic differences in overweight and obesity among youth in Ireland and the UK (2011-2021): A systematic review’, were published in BMC Public Health.

RCSI is committed to achieving a better and more sustainable future through the UN Sustainable Development Goals.