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 and poverty

Can poor people only afford fattening foods, or do they make poor nutrition choices?

Are they more easily attracted to junk food by advertising?

More money or more education?

It’s not a simple issue. I don’t know how well researched this is.

What to do about obesity?

The obvious answer to what to do about obesity is to eat less and to eat better foods. But many people obviously have difficulty with this, to the extent that obesity is being called an epidemic. There have been claims that due to obesity the trend of increasing life expectancy will reverse.

Stuff: For our Food for Thought series, we asked each party currently represented in Parliament how to improve Kiwis’ diets.

David Seymour: Obesity ‘an epidemic of choice’ but we must help poor

One in three Kiwis are obese.

New Zealand’s biggest problem is our ease of access to cheap, delicious, high-calorie food. We’re a victim of our own success.

The strange reality of obesity is that it’s an epidemic of choice.

The problems start when kids are affected, when the poorest communities suffer disproportionately, and when healthy taxpayers have to fork out for other people’s heart surgeries.

Some suggest removing GST from fruit and veges.

Another popular idea is advertising restrictions.

And that brings us to the real issue: shielding people from real-world decisions sends them the message that they are dumb, and government is smart. “Don’t take responsibility for yourself, or your kids. Nanny state will handle that.”

So what can politicians do?

ACT’s solution is the same as our solution to other social problems: empowering people with greater opportunity. That includes, but is not limited to, a useful education, an engaging job in a growing economy, and a realistic shot at a place of your own for every single New Zealander.

There is no “solution”. There could and should be more done to reduce the problems of poor health due to overeating. But it is a very very difficult thing to deal with in practice. Going cold turkey isn’t an option.

Peter Dunne: Education the key to improving Kiwis’ food habits

The answer to attaining healthier eating habits is not to have the Government become the parent of our nation’s parents. Rather, UnitedFuture endorses education as the pathway to empowering New Zealand consumers to make choices that are the best for their and their family’s circumstances.

UnitedFuture has three key policy areas we want to see changes to ensure that information is both freely available and publicised:

* We would develop a national fund to sponsor programmes to promote better nutrition, particularly for children and youth;

* We would use the tools of Government to facilitate public education campaigns that emphasise the importance of nutrition and exercise and the consequences of poor nutrition, such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke, cancer, and premature aging;

* We would support stronger consumer information rules by encouraging more information about food products to be published that are easily accessible by consumers (such as calorie count);

UnitedFuture has confidence in New Zealanders that they can make decisions that are right for them and their families when they are equipped with full information.

I see two major problems.

How do you educate the many people who are beyond school age? Compulsory night classes? Teaching kids at school is one possibility but for many school age is already too late, eating habits have already been established.

And education and knowledge doesn’t stop people from eating too much and it doesn’t stop people from making poor choices about what food they eat.

Many people know full well that scoffing junk food and gutsing too much is not good for their physical or mental health – depression and lack of self worth is a major factor in overeating, and it has a snowball effect as people approach the shape of a snowball.

Can growing obesity be stemmed? I really don’t know what would be effective.

It is very difficult to have any success telling someone not to eat as much.

After writing this I found more:

Jonathan Coleman, National: Tackling obesity is a priority for the Government
David Clark, Labour: Food labelling flaws make healthy eating hard for Kiwis
Julie Anne Genter, Green Party: Government must help kids, not food corporations to tackle obesity
Barbara Stewart, NZ First: Healthy eating a struggle for Kiwis
David Seymour, ACT: Obesity ‘an epidemic of choice’ but we must help poor
* The Maori Party did not take up our invitation to participate

Blaming obesity on healthy labels

A bizarre headline at NZ Herald – How labels on healthy food make you fatter.

What have the labels got, hidden powers of persuasion?

The article does go on to say that if you eat more you may not lose weight!

You’ve swapped chips for salad, cake for fruit and crisps for cereal bars – so why aren’t you losing weight?

It’s a question many frustrated dieters have puzzled over.

But now scientists may finally have the answer. They have found that if a food is labelled as a healthy option we tend to eat more of it – because we think it is less filling.

As a result we end up consuming more calories overall, undermining our saintly intentions.

Why would anyone think that something labelled as healthy is less filling?

Would anyone think that a pumpkin is less filling than a similarly sized serving of candy floss?

Perhaps it’s just that some people use ‘healthy’ labels as an excuse to eat more.

The research suggests that while eating unhealthily is often the cause of obesity, eating too much so-called “healthy” food could also make you put on weight.

Wow, what a revelation. Eating too much can lead to not losing weight.

Nothing ‘makes us’ eat too much. We choose how much we eat. The more we eat the more chance we don’t lose weight, or we put weight on.

Who needs research to tell you this?

Of course the more fatty sugary junk we eat the more chance of having weight problems. But most foods can add to your weight if consumed in large enough quantities.

The study is particularly relevant as many shoppers’ food choices are guided by the “traffic light” system of labels. Foods with high levels of salt, sugar or fat are in labelled in red, while those with moderate levels are in yellow and low levels are in green.

You can’t enforce common sense through labelling.

Most of us eat every day of our lives, usually several times a day.

Surely we can figure out for ourselves that quantity is a major factor in whether we starve, or whether we put on weight.

When I was younger I could eat as much as I liked and hardly affect my weight. But by my mid forties my metabolism changed, and I have joined the ranks of the weight watchers.

I needed to teach myself different eating habits if I wanted to avoid getting fat, especially mid front.

I now know fairly accurately what effect my daily consumption might have on my weight. Especially the quantity I eat regardless of how ‘healthy’ it might be labelled.

Sometimes I eat more than I need to maintain a weight I’m happy with, like on Christmas Day. So I ate less the day before and the day after and the end result was little change in my weight.

I rarely inspect food labels for ‘healthiness’. I have sort of got to know what foods need to be consumed with more care.

After 20,000 plus days of eating, and 3,00o odd days of eating needing care and awareness, I have a good idea about the likely effects of different types and quantities of food.

I don’t need to rely on food labels and nutritionists and Herald articles to know that if I guts myself without compensatory reductions my guts grows. I don’t want to have a growing girth so I take care with what I eat and how much I eat.

Self learning and personal responsibility are far more important and useful than food labels. I have no excuses if I get fat.

Could be New Zealand

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?

More die of too much food than too little

“More die in the United States of too much food than of too little” 
 John Kenneth Galbraith

The same will apply in New Zealand too. This is one of the ironies of so much attention being given to poverty in New Zealand.

Perversely some claim obesity is partly due to poverty – poor people can’t afford healthy food so they eat cheap fattening food. That doesn’t address an obvious question – why do they eat so much?

New Zealand is fat and getting fatter.

International Business Times: New Zealand May Overtake US And Mexico As ‘Fattest Nation’

New Zealand is on track to become the fattest country in the world.  A bariatric surgeon from Canterbury wrote in The New Zealand Medical Journal that the country was about to overtake the United States and Mexico in terms of obesity rates.

But alternate views are express on in No surgery silver bullet for New Zealand’s obesity epidemic – GP

In the New Zealand Medical Journaltoday, Christchurch bariatric surgeons Steven Kelly and Richard Flint call for more weight-loss surgery, saying New Zealand is on track to be the fattest nation in the world in five years.

They say the surgery – most commonly sleeve gastrectomies or gastric bypasses – will pay for itself within a few years, in terms of savings on treatment for diabetes and other obesity-related health problems.

“Patients can expect an average of 50-70 per cent excess body weight loss that is maintained over several years,” the authors say in an editorial.


Bariatric surgery may not be the solution to New Zealand’s growing obesity problem, warns an Auckland GP who specialises in weight management.

Anne-Thea McGill from Herne Bay Medical Centre says GPs are picking up the pieces when bariatric surgery causes complications or patients regain weight lost after surgery.

Dr McGill says she has seen patients who are still vomiting years after surgery, who may be slim but have nutritional problems or who have a gastric band that has slipped.

Also, she says, there’s a big difference between obesity and metabolic problems such as diabetes and fatty liver, which gastric surgery may not solve.

I know from experience that weight management is a daily challenge but it’s possible for most people.

Dr McGill, who is also a senior lecturer in general practice and primary care at Auckland University, leads a Ministry of Health-contracted programme Supporting Weight Management in Primary Care in the Bay of Plenty.

She believes the answer for most is still weight management through diet and exercise, although she does support some increase in the number of weight-loss surgeries each year.

With good support and information surgery can work well and diabetes can be reversed but patients need to follow sound dietary advice, rather than simply eating smaller portions of bad foods, Dr McGill says.

It’s easy for me to say but I don’t like the idea of my healthy stomach being meddled with surgically.

One of the authors, Richard Flint, told New Zealand Doctor patients are given yearly follow-up appointments for the rest of their lives but inevitably the rate of attendance drops away over the years.

He says there are few complications with the modern weight-loss procedures, unlike the stomach-stapling operations of 20 years ago. After three years of follow-ups, now, very often, there is nothing to follow up.

He would be disappointed if GPs stopped recommending surgery on the basis of one or two cases where complications had arisen.

I’d still be concerned about both short term complications and long term effects (which we simply can’t know about yet).

Eating less and/or exercising more is safer, but unfortunately for an increasing number it’s too hard.

We live in a quick fix society – where people expect others to fix their problems.

Solving the hungry kids at school problem

Solving child poverty – make the fat kids give half their school lunch to the impoverished kids, and solve the obesity problem at the same time.

Call it a consumption tax.

More seriously, how would free food at school affect:

  • the obesity problem?
  • the bad parent problem?
  • the lazy kid in the morning problem?

I was often too late and lazy to bother about breakfast before school.