Obesity is 'a symptom of poverty'

NOT SURPRISED: Anti-obesity campaigner Robyn Toomath.
NOT SURPRISED: Anti-obesity campaigner Robyn Toomath.

They are low-income workers or beneficiaries, they like sport on television but can't afford the gym, they love the ease of takeaway food and can't afford to buy healthily.

These are the New Zealanders most likely to be obese - with researchers saying obesity is a symptom of poverty rather than an issue of education or culture.

New profiling research from Roy Morgan has identified those most prone to weight issues in New Zealand, where they live, how much they earn and how concerned they are about it.

According to the research, working-class suburbs such as Otara, Manurewa and Glen Innes in Auckland, as well as Porirua, north of Wellington, are home to the biggest people.

These people watch a lot of television and being on a low wage or unemployed, cannot afford healthy food or gym memberships.

Research shows they are most likely to be Maori or Pacific Islander, young, from a single-income household and with small children.

Many are unemployed or underemployed, using part-time work to supplement benefits. They are unhappy with their lot but resistant to change.

Another group very likely to be battling their weight are Pacific Island or Maori families with adult children still living at home and on very low incomes.

They don't feel financially stable and those who do work are likely to be in transport or warehouse work.

Anti-obesity campaigner Robyn Toomath said the research supported her findings that it was poverty, not culture, that led to obesity.

"It's the affordability and accessibility of healthy food, it's not just a matter of straight cost. There are a lot of Pacific Island families where people are working two jobs - the low wage economy means people don't have the time [to cook healthily]."

South Auckland residents spoken to by the Sunday Star Times agreed money and accessibility was a barrier to their health.

Mangere town ambassador Monique Takie, 39, said she knew she needed to do more exercise but generally stuck to a bit of walking as gyms were expensive.

"If you have money then you can afford to buy vegetables, fish or healthy food like chicken. Health is a priority but because everything costs money, it's very hard.

"I have takeaways sometimes and fizzy drink because it's cheaper than bottled water."

Takie believed tap water wasn't healthy to drink.

Retiree Mata Ella, 74, said she knew she was big but she had never thought of herself as unhealthy.

She said her six children had all grown up and had kids of their own and her family were all big naturally.

"I'm low income but the way I look at my life, I never put money on the wrong thing.

"But the more money you have the better."

She said she ate hot chips sometimes and might have McDonald's for lunch but she ate slowly so it would be healthier.

Cash-strapped segments of society made up half the 10 obesity-prone profiles put together in the research.

They might be provincial families who prefer television to physical exercise or blue-collar households struggling enough to be more worried about finances rather than their weight.

Big Boy Burgers owner Chris Finan, 35, guessed only one per cent of businesses in South Auckland sold fresh food and he thought someone needed to "examine" the situation. His business was mobile but he stuck to South Auckland because he said "rich people" wouldn't eat his food.

"Fast food is just so easily accessible. The first thing you see in the supermarket there is chips and drinks. I reckon it's too expensive to buy healthy food."

About one in three New Zealanders are above the acceptable weight category.

The flipside to the poor and fat profile is the slim and wealthy.

The research shows those who are young, educated and urban and, more often than not, from Asian descent are 65 per cent more likely than the average New Zealander to be an acceptable weight. They are said to be health-conscious but not overly so, and on their way to big pay packets.

The over-representation of poor people among obese adults was concerning, Roy Morgan research general manager Pip Elliot said.

"These people can't afford health food or gym memberships, much less medical treatment for the health conditions that often arise from obesity [diabetes, for example]. What's more, the areas they live in aren't always well-equipped to provide the services they need."

Toomath said poorer suburbs often did not have the infrastructure to support healthy lifestyles. There were often not enough cycleways, it wasn't safe to walk alone in some areas and there were limited playgrounds for children.

Toomath wanted the Government to add a significant tax on soft drinks and take GST off fruits and vegetables.