The most current data show 1.26 million Kiwi adults, and around 101,000 children aged two to 14 years, are obese.
The child obesity rate has increased by four percentage points over each of the last two surveys from 8.4 per cent in 2006/07 to 12.4 per cent in 2017/18.
The percentage of adults suffering from obesity is around a third of the population (32 per cent – up from 27 per cent in 2006/07).
Obesity, which simply means being too heavy for your height in a way that affects your health, can lower life quality and shorten life expectancy.
It is associated with chronic health conditions including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer, stroke, osteoarthritis, sleep apnoea and reproductive issues.
Many things contribute to obesity including behaviour, environment and genetics. Eating more than we burn off with activity is the basic equation for weight gain. But genetics can make some of us gain and store fat more easily than others, and environment, such as long or shift work hours, social deprivation, nutrition illiteracy, and a shortage of healthy food outlets and an oversupply of fast food options can make eating well and exercising regularly more difficult.
Obesity is a mental and physical burden for those who suffer from it, as well as a wider health system burden. Overweight and obesity cost between $700 million and $800 million a year in health costs and lost productivity, according to University of Auckland research.
This year, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians released an evidence review on obesity and came up with the following recommendations for policy makers:
• Introduce regulations to restrict the marketing of unhealthy diets to children and young people
• Implement an effective tax on sugar-sweetened beverages to reduce consumption – and use the revenue thus generated to facilitate access to healthy diets and culturally relevant initiatives to improve health equity
• Revise the Health Star Rating system’s nutrient profiling algorithm to give stronger weight to sugar content, and by 2019 require that the labelling be mandatory to encourage consumers to choose healthier options and motivate food manufacturers to reformulate and develop healthier products
• Set targets for reducing mean population intakes of nutrients associated with unhealthy diets based on World Health Organization recommendations
• Introduce a health and wellbeing principle as part of local government decision-making when considering land use planning and zoning permissions
• Implement consistent healthy food and drink service policies which promote and enable healthy diets
• Implement a health-in-all-policies approach across government, including transportation and urban planning design, prioritising active transport and active recreation solutions.
Current government approaches to tackling obesity include:
• Increased access to bariatric surgery (400 in the past year according to Ministry of Health numbers)
• Green Prescriptions for exercise
• A voluntary Health Star Rating system for front of pack labelling of food products
• Several sets of guidelines for clinicians and consumers
• Healthy Families NZ community-driven health promotion
• The 2015 Childhood Obesity Plan which incorporates some of the above and focuses on Before School Checks, maternity and organised sport support, marketing and advertising to children, information and education and more guidelines.
As evidenced by the latest Health Survey numbers, obesity is stubbornly high, despite these approaches. Perhaps it’s time to try something else.