2 Jul 2015

Social importance of food hits Maori, Pasifika

6:41 am on 2 July 2015

A new study identifying the increasing amount and variety of food in New Zealand is likely to affect Māori and Pasifika people more than other groups because of the social importance placed on food, a leading researcher into obesity says.

The study, released by the World Health Organisation, shows that in high-income countries such as New Zealand, the increase in food supply was more than enough to explain increases in average body weight.

Professor Boyd Swinburn, from Auckland University, says the easy access to food which is tasty, relatively cheap, widely promoted and often processed, leads to over-consumption.

"Over the last 30 years what has increased most dramatically of this [obesity] epidemic is the increase in food which promotes obesity - junk food and unhealthy food."

Prof Swinburn said obesity was driving up the diabetes epidemic which affected Māori more than other New Zealanders in general.

In Māori and Pacific cultures, the sharing of food in social gatherings was a symbol of caring and love which could lead to obesity and other health problems.

"If food is used a lot in that way then maybe when we arrive at a position of food over-supply that those cultures tend to end up over-consuming more. It is quite an outstanding fact that we do have these big disparities in obesity with Māori and Pacific having particularly high rates."

Prof Swinburn said cultural shifts in thinking took time but he pointed to the cultural change which had happened around smoking.

"It's taken a few decades but now the culture around smoking is quite different to what it was 30-years ago."

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