Editorial: Obesity health risk no myth

Massey University fat studies researcher Cat Pause's assertion that obesity is not a major health problem is hokum. The health risks of being seriously overweight have long been known, and are too grave to ignore.

Dr Pause, who has organised New Zealand's first fat studies conference, starting today, raises legitimate concerns about efforts to combat the obesity epidemic unwittingly stigmatising people who are overweight.

Nobody should be made to feel uncomfortable because of their size and, as she correctly notes, social pressure to conform to some idealised image that is impossible for most people to achieve can be dangerous, especially for young women.

However, her claim that the health risks of obesity are based on "myth" flies in the face of the evidence. The link between obesity and serious illnesses such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, osteoporosis and some common cancers has been well-established by medical science during decades of robust study.

In New Zealand, now the world's third fattest country and where more than a quarter of the population is classed as obese, obesity also places significant pressure on the public purse at a time of limited resources. The World Health Organisation estimates the direct costs of obesity account for 2 to 7 per cent of a country's total health spending. That equates to between $282 million and $987m of the $14.1 billon the Government earmarked for health in this year's Budget. As a dozen medical specialists warned in an open letter to the New Zealand Medical Journal last year, that cost will "balloon out of control" if New Zealand does not get on top of its obesity problem.

Unfortunately, Dr Pause appears to confuse steps to do just that with hatred and prejudice against people who are overweight. She could not be more wrong.

Claiming that highlighting the very real health risks associated with obesity helps spread hatred of fat people is akin to claiming that highlighting the dangers of skin cancer is a personal attack on people who have a tan.

Dr Pause is clearly comfortable with her weight, and that is something to be admired. So, too, are her efforts to instil self-confidence in others who are overweight, but who feel stigmatised and lack self-esteem as a result. She is also correct to note that a culture in which girls as young as 5 are dieting because they are terrified of being branded fat, and in which people obsess about their size and image, is itself not healthy.

But there is a world of difference between judging somebody because of their weight or appearance and trying to get on top of what is undeniably a major health issue.

While it is true that a person who is overweight is not necessarily unhealthy, and that the message on obesity needs to be made sensitively to avoid counter-productive consequences, the links between obesity and seriously debilitating and fatal diseases is undeniable. Being in full possession of the facts in that regard, health professionals and administrators have a responsibility to ensure the public is properly informed.

The Dominion Post