We're get­ting fat­ter

Waikato Times - - Front Page - RACHEL THOMAS and TOM HUNT

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’’.

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