2 Apr 2016

Calls for stronger action to fight obesity

7:27 pm on 2 April 2016

A public health expert is calling for stronger government leadership to combat obesity, with a new study revealing NZ has one of the highest rates of overweight people in the world.

Obesity.

A new study has found New Zealand has one of the highest ratios of overweight people in the world, in which more people are now obese than underweight. Photo: 123rf

The study, published in The Lancet, compared body mass index among almost 20 million adult men and women people, from 1975 to 2014.

The study predicted that if current trends continue, the likelihood of meeting the global obesity target was virtually zero and that by 2025, 17 percent of men and 21 percent of women in the world would be obese.

The research revealed nearly 20 percent of the world's obese adults - 118 million - live in New Zealand and five other high-income English-speaking countries: Australia, Canada, Republic of Ireland, Britain, and America.

It found New Zealand has one of the highest ratios of overweight people in the world, in which more people are now obese than underweight.

Obesity in men had tripled and more than doubled in women.

One of the report's authors, Robert Beaglehole, an Emeritus Professor at Auckland University said New Zealand had lost the battle with adult obesity, but there was much more that could be done to prevent children from becoming overweight.

He said the government was neglecting strategies to reduce the condition among children, such as placing a tax on sugary drinks.

Almost everyone working in the field of nutrition knew the government's 'recommendations' on how children could avoid obesity would not work.

"It's a question of whose interests the government is promoting. If it's promoting the interests of the children of New Zealand it will act seriously and do all measures that are available to prevent further childhood obesity.

"That's not being a nanny state, that's being a responsible government looking after its most vulnerable citizens."

Generic. Teenager drinks soft drink.

Robert Beaglehole says the NZ government is neglecting strategies to reduce childhood obesity, such as placing a tax on sugary drinks. Photo: 123RF

Professor Beaglehole said those actions included a ban on the promotion of junk food to children via sports sponsorship and encouraging the All Blacks to take sponsorship from healthier drink and food options.

While the changes might come at an initial cost for food industries, they could also reformulate their products and make them healthier without too much loss of income, making it a 'win-win situation', he said.

Otago University professor of nutrition and medicine Jim Mann criticised the government's 22 recommendations for tackling childhood obesity, saying they were 'soft options'.

"We are exposed to this environment where we are encouraged to have energy-dense food, advertising is unlimited and there really is no attempt to restrict our consumption."

Professor Mann said the government needed to legislate to deal with the issue and do more than just simply educate people.

"Everyone knows what we should be doing, but clearly we're not doing it."

He said New Zealand should adopt similar strategies to those used to fight alcohol and tobacco use and change the environment to discourage access to cheap, highly processed carbohydrates.

Professor Mann recommended the government put a tax on sugary drinks and introduce stricter advertising regulations, particularly to children.

He said compulsory programmes to schools should also be included, for example stopping junk food being sold to raise money for schools.

Health Minister Jonathan Coleman said in a statement that New Zealand was one of the first countries in the OECD to have a target and a comprehensive plan to tackle Childhood Obesity.

"There's no single solution that will fix obesity. That's why we implemented a plan with a range of interventions across government, the private sector, communities, schools and families.

He said the government's position on a sugar tax hadn't changed and it wasn't something being actively considered.

"We'll continue to keep a watching brief on the emerging evidence, including research from the University of Waikato and University of North Carolina."

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