Obesity epidemic at 'crisis' point

BEN HEATHER
Last updated 05:00 09/06/2014
Lloma Nicholas and daughters Jody and Charlotte
ROSS GIBLIN/Fairfax NZ

FIGHTING THE FAMILY CURSE: Lloma Nicholas and daughters Jody, 12, left, and Charlotte, 14, are tackling obesity by taking part in the Active Families programme.

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New Zealand is fat, getting fatter, and doctors say urgent action needs to be taken.

The New Zealand Medical Association, which represents thousands of doctors, says the soaring obesity rate is now a "public health crisis".

In a report published today, the association calls for drastic cures for the bulge, including taxing or minimum prices for sugary drinks, restricting food advertising aimed at children, and taking fast food out of schools.

Tackling obesity should be embedded in everything from new building developments to school curriculums, the report says. Despite overwhelming evidence of the massive cost of obesity, the official response had been "piecemeal and largely ineffectual", lagging behind many other countries.

The current Government's move, when first elected, to scrap healthy food in schools, was singled out as a particularly troubling decision.

Reliance on self-regulation of the food industry was not working, the report says. "A prevailing ideology of individual responsibility and vested commercial interests have combined to thwart, dilute and undermine previous attempts at effective policies to counter the challenge of obesity."

Association chairman Mark Peterson said more needed to be done to make healthy choices easier. "It is killing us and it is also costing us a lot of money."

New Zealand was the fourth fattest country in the OECD, behind only the United States, Mexico and Hungary.

Otago University health researcher Professor Jim Mann said he supported the report's recommendations, particularly a fizzy drink tax. Kiwis were becoming so big that they were almost blind to obesity. "Parents can't even identify when their children are overweight or obese. Obesity is fast becoming normal."

New Zealand's poverty rates, particularly among children, and cheap access to fatty tasty foods were largely to blame, as was a lack of political will. "There is this obsession with the nanny state, that we shouldn't be telling people what to do."

Green Party health spokesman Kevin Hague said awareness and industry initiatives were clearly not enough to combat obesity.

He compared the approach to obesity to smoking, for which the Government had aggressively lifted prices and limited marketing.

Labour health spokeswoman Annette King pointed out that Labour's healthy food in schools programme was scrapped by National.

Health Minister Tony Ryall said the Government would not be introducing restrictive measures to fight obesity, such as a sugar tax or enforced advertising limits. "The Government sees its role as providing information and support for individuals and families regarding healthy eating."

About $60 million was spent a year on obesity programmes.

BREAKING THE CYCLE

Lloma Nicholas' family have been big and sick for generations, but she is determined her daughters will break the cycle. "I just didn't want them to end up like me."

The Johnsonville mother's life was saved by stomach stapling surgery six years ago, helping her shed 47 kilograms and bring her type-2 diabetes under control.

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She was the lucky one, with many of the generation before her losing legs to the disease and dying young.

"It runs in the family. My mother had both her legs off before she died, my aunt has one leg, so does my uncle."

Nicholas grew up on diet of home-cooked, deep-fried chips and, by the time she hit her 30s, she weighed more than 130kg.

"The chippies were really, really bad. Thankfully with the surgery, I can't eat that many any more, they make me sick."

About a year ago, she took older daughter Charlotte, now 14, to the doctor, concerned about her asthma.

He noticed Charlotte was putting on weight and referred the family to Sport Wellington's Active Families programme.

The year-long programme involves families getting together for talks about nutrition, active living and group games.

Nicholas said it changed their lives, with Charlotte taking up football and her other daughter, Jody, 12, now playing netball.

She herself was coaching netball and the whole family was eating better.

DOCTORS' ORDERS

IN SHOPS:

Tax sugary drinks and investigate wider taxes on unhealthy food.

Introduce mandatory "traffic light" health ratings on packaging.

AT THE DOCTOR'S:

Health professionals should regularly advise obese patients about healthy living.

National targets, much like quit smoking advice or heart checks, for healthy advice.

IN THE COMMUNITY:

Councils should audit fast-food outlets, with a view to moving them away from schools.

Urban development should include an assessment of how it will affect health.

More community-based health schemes.

IN SCHOOLS:

Nutrition should be taught in all schools.

Healthy food guidelines for canteens.

IN THE MEDIA:

Laws restricting advertising food to kids.

- The Dominion Post

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