We're getting fatter
New Zealand is fat and getting fatter.
A new OECD ‘‘obesity update’’ shows nearly one in three Kiwis is obese and the only fatter nations are the United States and Mexico.
New Zealand has been in third place since at least 2007 – but back then, 26.5 per cent of adults were obese. Ten years later, it’s 30.7 per cent.
While no predictions were made in the report on where New Zealand’s waistlines are heading, it did show that all countries are predicted to see a ‘‘steady increase’’ in obesity until at least 2030.
The US – on 38.2 per cent obesity – and Mexico – on 32.4 per cent – are the only nations to outrank New Zealand. Japan and Korea – on 3.7 and 5.3 per cent respectively – are the least obese.
‘‘Social inequalities in overweight and obesity are strong, especially among women,’’ the OECD report said.
‘‘In about half of the eight countries for which data are available, less-educated women are two to three times more likely to be overweight than those with higher levels of education.’’
‘‘Basically, it’s bad and it’s getting worse,’’ Christchurch bariatric surgeon Steven Kelly said.
‘‘Obesity continues to increase at 0.5 per cent year on year and it’s certainly not slowing up.’’
Some of his patients had BMIs of 70 to 80. A BMI over 30 is considered obese, while 40 or above is morbidly obese.
‘‘Every week now, I would see a patient who is over 200 kilograms. Ten years ago, you would be lucky if you saw one 200-kilogram person a year.’’
The Ministry of Health statistics – which are more recent than the OECD ones – state almost one in three people 15 and older is obese.
The reasons for New Zealand’s burgeoning waistlines are complex, but it is essentially a toxic combination of genetics and our environment, Kelly said.
For most of the 3500 years modern humans have been around, food scarcity and famines have kept civilisation lean, he said.
‘‘Now we live with the same genes but have energy-dense, readily available food anywhere. And everybody overeats.’’
The average Kiwi eats 350 more calories every day than they need, Kelly said.
‘‘The genes load the gun and the environment pulls the trigger.’’
Auckland bariatric surgeon Richard Barbor said we lived in a ‘‘toxic food environment’’.
‘‘The biggest thing that keeps getting spun out in the media is this fallacy of choice – that somehow eating is everybody’s individual responsibility.
‘‘If you expose humans to unhealthy foods, they get fat. The human body isn’t designed to fend off all these corporate food outlets. Our population needs protection from toxic foods.’’
Protection could include banning junk food advertising aimed at children, adopting sugar taxes and putting restraints on sales of refined carbohydrates, he said.
Otago University public health Professor Tony Blakely believes excess energy intake is the biggest reason behind the obesity epidemic.
‘‘The food industry . . . creates foods that are tasty and enjoyable to us so we’re left with excess energy intake. If we’re going to turn this around, we do need to change the environment.’’
That meant ‘‘nudging’’ the food industry to change the way foods are prepared to reduce their salt and sugar content, he said.
He also said district health boards could intervene with programmes aimed at reducing diabetes and bariatric surgery – socalled stomach stapling – ‘‘but it has to start at the food industry and our environment’’.
But Food and Grocer Council (FGC) chief executive Katherine Rich said manufacturers had put huge and ongoing efforts into reformulating popular products – both food and beverages – to remove sugar, fat, or salt.
‘‘There are now many hundreds more healthier options available to shoppers than there have ever been.
‘‘Blaming the environment is an academic theory that only takes you so far. There are many people who live in the same environment and aren’t obese, which indicates that food selection, genetics and activity levels are key factors as well.’’
The industry was one of the drivers behind the Health Star Rating scheme – now displayed on more than 2500 products – which was designed to make it easier to identify healthier products, she said.
The Government has repeatedly dismissed calls for a sugar tax, with Health Minister Jonathan Coleman stating ‘‘there is no evidence that a sugar tax decreases obesity rates’’.
Blakely said about 30 countries – including Ireland, Mexico, the UK, and France – had a sugar tax and he believed it would be ‘‘an inevitability’’ for New Zealand. Kelly agreed.
‘‘For every 20 per cent you tax sugary drinks, there’s a 20 per cent reduction [in consumption].’’
He was disheartened by government efforts to curb obesity, but believed leaders would be forced to act eventually.
‘‘Will it be in 2030 when it’s predicted that 40 to 45 per cent of the population are going to be obese?
‘‘A tsunami of diabetes is on its way. If 30 per cent of the world’s population has diabetes, that will make every health economy in the world bankrupt.’’
In the mid-2000s, obesity was estimated to cost New Zealand’s health system about $600 million each year, Blakely said, but that figure would have increased. Kelly said, ‘‘You could probably double that.’’
Former prime minister Helen Clark labelled the New Zealand findings ‘‘shocking’’ via Twitter and said the Government needed to ‘‘stop this epidemic’’.