Garner: We're eating ourselves to death

19:05, May 30 2014

Kim Dotcom loomed large in the news this week - but obesity is the real issue and it's far more alarming than any shameless marriage of political convenience.

We're eating too much, heaps of sugar is a problem and we're drinking too much fizzy drink. I can't put it any more simply than this: we're eating ourselves to death.

It's not hard to see why. We're surrounded by temptation, marketing stunts, massive food halls and an ever expanding number of fast-food outlets. Bad food is so much cheaper than the healthy stuff. But personal responsibility is a big part of this too and many of us are guilty of poor parenting - we need to say "No" more often, as harsh as that may sound.

I popped into Countdown on Wednesday and as I walked the aisles I was confronted by big boxes of "coloured" Fanta on sale. It was more than on sale, the store was close to giving it away. For just $1 you get a 1.5 litre bottle of blueberry or grape Fanta. It looked truly awful and I suspect it tastes even worse. The boxes were stacked at ground level, naturally the perfect eye level for a child to see and decide they can't live without it.

There is not one ounce of goodness in these fizzy drinks - it's nasty stuff.

I looked at the other drinks for sale - nothing was as cheap as the cheap fizz. Down the road at Pak'n Save, it was heavily promoting two bottles of 2.25-litre Coke as the star attraction at the supermarket's $5 Week. Instead, I opted for eight feijoas ($4.50) and some grapes ($6) - no wonder tired and money- conscious parents head for the cheap and nasty.


Suffice to say I did not fall off my chair in surprise this week when The Lancet medical journal published a truly scary study of obesity in 188 countries over the past 30 years.

Our results should be a national disgrace. The only saving grace is that we're in good company with the rest of the world when it comes to getting heavier.

So how do we measure up? Well, with a lot more measuring tape than when the highly regarded journal last probed our waistlines.

An estimated 2.2 million Kiwi adults are now overweight and of those, 960,000 are obese. The United States is still the leader of the fat world, with a third of the adult population obese.

The research says 66 per cent of New Zealanders are either overweight or obese - and girls are worse than boys. About 510,000 New Zealand women are deemed obese - and 450,000 men.

Maybe the fiery reaction to Rachel Smalley's on-air comment about Kiwi women being "lardos" suggests we as a country are in denial about the size of the problem.

Childhood obesity is deeply troubling too. Almost one in three Kiwi kids are now obese according to the study. Maori and Pacific obesity is a growing concern, according to just about every survey.

So maybe it's no longer a ticking time bomb. Perhaps the bomb has gone off over the past three decades and we're only just realising.

The health and financial impacts of being a fat country are obvious.

Obesity already costs the health system $1 billion a year. Being overweight causes strokes, heart attacks, dementia and cancer. More than 200,000 Kiwis now have diabetes - and 50 people a day are now diagnosed with the disease.

So what's the answer?

Associate Professor Nick Wilson of the University of Otago in Wellington says it's time for the Government to regulate and tax the food industry. But that's nanny state, isn't it?

No, he says, it's not. Big taxes on tobacco are working to reduce the numbers of smokers and related illnesses - and now is the time to tax sugar, as they do in some European countries. The higher the tax, he says, the more effective it is. Maybe it's time we tried this approach. But would you really stop buying a can of coke if it cost you 50c more?

There will always be the sceptics and critics who warn that taxes and minimum prices for products won't work. But we have to do something. If we stay on this current track we're going to blow ourselves up.

Of course it's up to us to control what we put in our mouths. Of course it's about personal and parental responsibility. In some cases it's about our genetics. But the facts are indisputable - we've become irresponsible with ourselves over the past 30 years.

The Press