Two-third of Kiwis overweight or obese

00:30, May 29 2014

A report highlighting soaring rates of obesity around the world has led to fresh calls for government intervention to try to change what New Zealanders eat.

The report showed the proportion of men classified as obese in this country has increased more than anywhere else - rising from 13 per cent to 28 per cent between 1980 and 2013.

The proportion of New Zealand adults considered overweight or obese rose from 50 per cent to 66 per cent - an estimated 2.2 million people, including 960,000 who were obese.

Among children, 29 per cent were considered overweight or obese, up from 18 per cent. The obesity rate for females under 20 was 9 per cent and for males under 20 it was 10 per cent.

The analysis of data from 188 countries was published in The Lancet. The work was done for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2013 by an international consortium of researchers led by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington.

The body mass index, weight-to-height ratio measurement, was used to define which weight group people were in.


A co-author of the report, Associate Professor Tony Merriman from the biochemistry department at Otago University, said the intervention needed to reverse the rise in obesity was not straightforward and would need strategic coordination by government.

"It has to begin with public health approaches to reduce the total calorific intake of New Zealanders, alongside approaches to increase physical activity," he said.

"The former would require governmental policy change and specific interventions, such as reducing the price disparity between nutritious healthy foods and energy dense nutrition-poor unhealthy food."

In this country research should be stepped up into the biological drivers of obesity, particularly in Maori and Pacific people, Merriman said.

The research was needed to change ingrained attitudes to obesity, which was widely perceived to be the fault of the individual, who lacked the will to be lean. Overseas research had shown obesity was a heritable neurobehavioural condition sensitive to environmental conditions.

Associate Professor Nick Wilson of Otago University said policy solutions included taxing things which promoted excessive weight gain, starting with soft drinks.

"Higher taxes on vehicle fuel could also go to expand walkways and cycleways - with a study from Oregon suggesting that cycleway infrastructure is very cost effective,"  Wilson said.

"Not only does increased active transport help prevent and control obesity - it may also be good fro mental health, reducing air pollution, and reducing the harm New Zealand is doing to the global environment through relatively high greenhouse gas emissions per capita.

Professor Boyd Swinburn, professor of population nutrition and global health at Auckland University, said successive governments in this country had been unwilling to take on the food industry by regulating the marketing of foods causing childhood obesity.

"The priority is to protect the health of children and support parents from the pester power created by junk food ads - these are more important than the profits of the junk food industry."

According to the report, 2.1 billion people around the world - nearly 30 per cent of the population - are either obese or overweight.