Alarming NZ obesity trend – 2 million by 2030s

Obesity has become a huge health issue in the developed world, including New Zealand, to the extent that some predict that life expectancy may already be reducing.

When I was younger I could eat whatever I liked without worrying about my weight. But middle age changed that, and now I need to be constantly aware of my diet to avoid the dreaded middle aged spread.

It looks like I am in a shrinking minority.

RNZ: Two million New Zealanders will be obese by the 2030s – study

A new study is predicting two million New Zealanders could be considered clinically obese in the next 20 years.

The Otago University study found that Body Mass Index (BMI) of New Zealanders is on the rise and the average BMI is on track to be above the obesity threshold by the early 2030s.

BMI is only an approximate indicator but is commonly used as an easy measure of obesity.

An index between 18.5kg/m2 and 25kg/m2 is considered the healthy weight range – anything at 30kg/m2 or above is considered to be obese.

I’m usually near the top of the ‘healthy’ range, but that’s in part because I have relatively dense bones. I have been tested, monitored and body scanned in a University study a few years ago, and this showed I have a relatively high BMI for my height and weight.

You can calculate your BMI here: BMI calculator

Mine is 24.21, it drops by .32 for every kg I reduce.

While only one health factor the BMI is an easy way to measure trends.

Lead researcher Ross Wilson said obesity rates had tripled between 1977 and 2013.

“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,” Mr Wilson said.

Healthcare costs associated with treating obesity-related conditions in New Zealand were estimated to be $624 million in 2006.

Mr Wilson said given ongoing increases in obesity over the past decade, current costs were likely to be substantially higher than this.

Results from an annual Ministry of Health survey late last year showed that 1.2 million adults and 99,000 children aged between two to 14 were dangerously overweight.

Those figures have been increasing since 2011, with a rise of nearly 6 percent and 4 percent, respectively from 10 years ago.

Otago University Professor of medicine Jim Mann said those were terrible statistics but he was not surprised.

I’ve participated in a number or food studies in his department.

“My main reaction is one of continuing dismay … the population [for obesity] is horrendous, we’ve got an epidemic of obesity so it’s a good reminder that we’ve got one enormous problem in New Zealand,” he said.

Weight is a result of a fairly simple equation – energy consumed (via food) versus energy used.

But controlling weight is increasingly difficult for an increasing number of people.

As a population we are increasingly inactive, and also eat more, as well as eating a greater quantity of highly processed high energy foods and drinks.

One recent fad is using blenders to render more fruit and vegetables than you would normally consume into an easily digestible (and unnatural) mush. Why not just eat an apple or banana or orange?

One major problem is marketing – it is increasingly common to be urged to consume unhealthy amounts of relatively unhealthy foods. And many people are susceptible to this marketing.

I want to stay healthy as long as I can and live as long as I can, and make reasonable efforts to increase my odds.

One simple positive change is to train myself to look for quality of food, and less of it. In my youth I was largely interested in quantity. Smaller better servings are actually more enjoyable when you get the right sort of mindset.

One of my biggest motivations is from my determination to not get a pot gut. There are plenty around to keep reminding me what I should avoid – but it is something that can happen very quickly if you over indulge and under exercise.

Many people get trapped in overweight bodies. Once you have one it can be very difficult to turn things around, and even more difficult to keep things turned around.

One problem is that we are genetically programmed to stock up on fat reserves when there is an abundance of food, but unlike our ancestors we always have an abundance of high energy sugary fatty foods readily available.

So we need to retrain ourselves. That’s an ongoing challenge, but success can be quire rewarding. As rewarding as extending our lives, potentially substantially.

Obesity, poverty and education

Obesity, poverty and education are all linked, but like a whole chicken and half a dozen eggs it’s difficult to know what part of the problem should be addressed first.

One thing’s for sure, just giving poor, under educated obese people more money is unlikely to be successful in addressing the problem.

A report by the Institute of Economic Research says that Obesity linked to cycle of poverty.

Obese people are more likely to be stuck in a “vicious cycle” of poverty because they perform poorly in school and miss out on jobs, researchers say.

A report, by the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research, said adults living in poor areas were 1.6 times as likely to be obese as those in other areas, and “face challenges at lifting their socio-economic status”, starting with lower education.

“Obese children don’t tend to do as well academically as their peers,” the report said.

“Those lead in turn to lower wages, employment and social deprivation which increase the likelihood of obesity.”

It’s a First World problem where poor people tend to be fatter.

Edgar National Centre for Diabetes and Obesity Research director Professor Jim Mann said low socio-economic status was a “vicious cycle” for those with obesity.

“Being economically disadvantaged is a predisposing factor to obesity. One reason is good food preparation requires either time or money. If you are rich you can get good food or if you have a lot of time you can soak the lentils, et cetera.

But most of the poorest people are beneficiaries. They generally should have more time to prepare food than working parents. So do they make poor choices with their selection of food?

Just giving poor people more money risks them making more poor food choices.

Countering the high economic and social costs started with the surrounding environment, said Mann.

“If people are not bombarded with high saturated fat, high sugar kind of food everywhere they go . . . if you didn’t have people who are socio-economically disadvantaged you would lose an enormous amount of obesity.

Fast food and convenience food advertising often targets the more poorly educated demographic. For example a lot of McDonalds advertising seems to feature dumb people.

Poorly educated people may be more susceptible to being duped by advertising and high pressure sales methods.

“The most important thing is to create an environment that reduces the risk of obesity,

Better education.

Better education to improve employment and earning opportunites.

Better education on nutrition food preparation.

And education on how not to be sucked into manky marketing? A lot of advertising tries to sell things people don’t need or are bad for them.

The big problem is that these are ingrained inter-generational problems.

Taking over parent’s responsibilities and feeding kids at school won’t fix obesity – the kids will still overeat at home.

There are Government initiatives that try to address this at the level of young school leavers. I know of second chance educators who provide food free to teenagers who have failed in the education system. But that food is largely ignored,

In a society that’s more advanced than any in world history it’s ironic that we haven’t figured out how to do one our most fundamental functions – to eat sensibly and safely.

A major problem is that the rate of change of society has been much faster than normal human learning and evolution works.

This is potentially a lot more serious a problem for humankind than climate change – the climate has fluctuated for eons, but the current state of a high tech high pressure marketing fattening society is unique.

Will we ever catch up? Or will we kill ourselves off?