We must hang our fat heads in shame

So we've become a corpulent mob of Bessie Bunters and Friar Tucks waddling our way up the OECD league tables. And, my, don't we just love those league tables.

They simplify; they offer digestible soundbites; they give us an opportunity to look around at our neighbours and scoff, or gloat - or shrink in shame.

Shrinking in shame in this instance is all too easy. The sad fact is that we are three rungs from the top in the 30 most developed nations' obesity ladder, behind second-placed Mexico and the runaway winner, the United States. Cue pictures on our TV screens of a generous selection of Kiwi fatties.

Obesity these days is defined as a body mass index (BMI) of 30.0. Overweight is a BMI of 25.0 to 29.9. The latest OECD report has found that the obesity rate among adult New Zealanders is 26.5%. That is, slightly more than one in four of us is officially fat, as compared with slightly more than one in three (34.3%) Americans.

BMI is calculated by dividing body weight in kilograms by height squared in metres. So for someone like me, at 92kg and 1.82m tall, my BMI is 92 divided by 1.82 x 1.82 (3.31) which comes to 27.8. This is perilously close to obese and certainly squarely in the overweight category.

To achieve a BMI below the overweight zone, say 24.9, I would have to weigh 82.4kg. (Sadly, the last time I got close to that mark was about 30 years ago after two or three weeks pedalling a bike around the North Island.)

On the other hand, were I to put on 7kg I'd be officially obese.

Without wishing to sound overly defensive, BMI may be a useful tool for gauging the overall obesity of a population but it can be seriously flawed at an individual level.

Many sports people - rugby players for instance, bulked up on muscle as they are these days - probably have BMIs that take them into the obesity zone when they are anything but.

And in terms of international rankings we should also understand that we are probably a lot more assiduous in how we compile our statistics than some other countries.

Be that as it may, it is a fact that obesity has risen dramatically in this country - as it has in other OECD nations - even in the space of the past decade or so.

The causes of weight gain are complex, but it is generally a result of a regular surplus of energy intake over energy expenditure; put more simply, of eating and drinking more calories than we burn off.

There are genetic factors, including a variable predisposition to weight gain, but many experts believe that the relatively rapid increase in obesity is because of "modern lifestyle" factors - sedentary jobs, lack of exercise and increased consumption of the wrong sorts of food.

Should we be concerned?

Whose business is it what we eat and drink and whether we choose to exercise and how often? Aren't intrusions into these areas of our lives just the ministrations of a controlling and overbearing state?

Or we could ask, do private patterns of behaviour in this respect have public consequences and impacts?

Some estimates put the number of preventable deaths a year related to poor nutrition and obesity in New Zealand at about 8000, which is around about 20 times the size of the annual road toll - and we do tend to get rather upset about that.

The annual cost of obesity and diabetes to the health system has been estimated at $900 million - which is no small figure either.

Apart from type 2 diabetes, being overweight or obesity is a significant risk factor in heart disease, stroke and several common cancers.

Unfortunately unless they are checked, these statistics are set to boom and place an untenable burden on our health system.

In this context the hasty decisions by an incoming Government to abolish initiatives towards learning healthy eating in schools, and getting rid of reducing obesity and improving nutrition as targets for health boards seem a tad short-sighted.

Sure we need shorter waiting lists and more interventionist operations where they are needed most, but, as the old saying goes, prevention is better than cure - and sure as heck it's a lot cheaper.

If we can encourage and or educate people from an early age on to sensible eating and exercise regimes - then so much the better.

But enough of solving the world's weighty problems. I have my very own: a whole 10kg's worth. Time I got off by butt and waddled down to the gym.

- Simon Cunliffe is assistant editor at the Otago Daily Times.


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