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18th of July 2018


'Wake-up' call study shows 'alarming' increase in obesity rates

Nearly half of all New Zealanders will be obese within 20 years if current trends continue.

Nearly half of all New Zealanders will be obese within 20 years if current trends continue.

New Zealand is already one of the world's fattest countries. Within 20 years nearly one-in-two adults will be clinically obese, new research shows.

Junk food and sedentary lifestyles are two of the leading causes for an obesity epidemic the paper suggests will have increasing health and economic costs.

University of Otago researcher Dr Ross Wilson, the study's lead author of the new study, said he hoped it would be a "wake-up" call.

"Body mass index (BMI) and obesity rates are continuing to increase in New Zealand and our expectation is that they will continue to do so for the forseeable future," he said.

READ MORE:* Why New Zealanders are still among the fattest people in the world* Reducing income inequality could cut obesity* Study finds obesity is 'socially contagious'

"High BMI has now overtaken tobacco as the greatest contributor to health loss in New Zealand, which emphasises the public health importance of these findings."

The study, published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, drew from the Government's New Zealand Health Survey and other data tracking BMI over time. 

BMI is a measure of body fat based on height and weight. A BMI of between 18.5 and 25 is considered healthy, 25 to 30 overweight, and 30 and over obese.

New Zealand's average BMI increased from 26.4 in 1997 to 28.3 in 2015. If the trend continues, the study said the average BMI would exceed the obesity threshold by the early 2030s.

Policy initiatives like a tax on sugary drinks and removing junk food from workplaces and other settings are among ...

Policy initiatives like a tax on sugary drinks and removing junk food from workplaces and other settings are among suggestions to address the 'obesity epidemic'.

Wilson said unless steps were taken to curb the "alarming" trend, about 45 per cent of adults would be obese by 2038, up from about 32 per cent now.

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The study also highlights socioeconomic and ethnic disparity. By 2038, the average BMI of Pacific people would be 8.1 greater than general population's.

Healthcare costs of overweight and obesity-related conditions was estimated at $624 million in 2006,  or 4.4 per cent of all healthspending.

Auckland University Professor Boyd Swinburn, who was involved in the 2006 research, estimated the annual cost was now about $1 billion, including lost productivity.

Increased obesity would increase the cost of health effects including heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and musculoskeletal conditions including back pain. 

Wilson and the study's co-author, Otago University Professor Haxby Abbott, said the findings emphasised the need for effective public health measures to tackle the causes of the obesity epidemic.

This could include: making healthy food relatively cheaper through subsidies or taxation, restricting marketing of unhealthy food, and promoting walking and cycling.

Swinburn said introducing a tax on sugary drinks was a "no-brainer", as was removing junk food from settings such as workplaces.

"If you don't change the underlying driver, which is the over-consumption of junk food, then you're never going to change the trajectory of obesity in New Zealand," he said.

widespread calls from health professionals for a sugary drinks tax  have so far had little political buy-in despite evidence from overseas.

Britain introduced a tax in April charging manufacturers levies depending on sugar content. Before it took effect,  many companies had already reduced sugar in their drinks.

Wilson said he hoped the study encouraged more discussion around the issue of rising obesity rates.

"Hopefully it will be a little bit of a wake-up call that it's time to start looking at what we can do from a a public health perspective to avert this alarming rise."

By the numbers

Figures from the 2016/17 New Zealand Health Survey show:

The average Māori man weighs 94.4kg, is 176cm tall, and has a BMI of 30.5 The average Māori woman weighs 83.4kg, is 163.1cm tall, and has a BMI of 31.3 The average Pacific man weighs 102kg, is 176.4cm tall, and has a BMI of 32.7 The average Pacific woman weighs 98.4kg, is 164.6cm tall, and has a BMI of 36.2 The average New Zealand European man weighs 86.7kg, is 176.5cm tall, and has a BMI of 27.8 The average New Zealand European woman weighs 74.7kg, is 163cm tall, and has a BMI of 28.1

 - Stuff

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