Not Breaking News: Obesity in Australia

Growing up, I always looked up to my mum. In primary school I remember having to write down who my role models were and I only had one, my mum. She was kind, loving and very easy to talk to. She was just under 5 feet tall and cut a very rounded figure for most of her life. She has been overweight for as long as I can remember, but as a child this was of little importance to me. You could say that health was never a real priority in our household. It’s not that we didn’t want to be healthy, but more that we didn’t know it was necessary and we probably didn’t even know what ‘healthy’ looked like.

Part of growing up in a pretty poor family in regional Australia meant that we didn’t always eat the best foods. We lived on white bread and margarine, potato chips and whatever else was on special that week. We also didn’t have a lot of money for other activities like extra-curriculas or sports programs. We’d spend our school afternoons sitting on the lounge room floor watching cartoons and eating junk food – a picture which is all too familiar for many Australians. Our home probably wasn’t the best place for championing a healthy lifestyle and turns out that majority of (especially regional) households tell a similar story.

When mum was 17, a major car accident broke her body to pieces, as a result, she was left tortured with chronic back pain and medication was the only way she could function. Even medicated it was hard for her to get around, or stand for extended periods of time. Tasks which most people would consider mundane, at times could be too much for her. Since then, she had been relatively sedentary, eating a basic diet of processed carbohydrates and just trying to make ends meet. Nevertheless, Mum did her best with the little information and resources available, but inevitably her lifestyle combined with her injuries had dramatic consequences on her long-term health.

As her weight piled on, the pain got worse, her health deteriorated and she put on even more weight. A self-sustaining feedback loop had been created.

Mum had high blood pressure, high cholesterol, stomach ulcers, gallstone removal surgery and had been flagged as a pre-diabetic. All of these health conditions have been associated with one condition: Obesity. At 149cm tall and 101kg my mother fit the bill.

What she failed to realise and what doctors did not make her aware of, was that her weight may have been a major cause in her ongoing health conditions.

Now generally accepted, the Western world is launching itself into a wide scale obesity epidemic. In Australia, the obesity statistics are scary; Recently the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare published a paper to highlight how we are tracking in terms of obesity and the trends of the past. They found that Children and adolescents aged 10–13 and 14–17 in 2014–15 were more likely to be overweight or obese than their counterparts 20 years earlier. They also noted that adults in 2014–15 were found to be significantly more obese than adults of the same age 20 years earlier.

The study highlighted the main cause of Obesity being that children in Australia are being born into an obesogenic environment – an environment which promotes obesity. It is an environment in Australia which we know too well – Big portion sizes, attractive and delicious foods which are typically very high in calories and we are spending less time creating healthy, nutritious meals. Additionally to poor diet, we are putting less emphasis on physical activity and becoming increasingly sedentary.

This is not anything new to us. It’s not groundbreaking or out of the ordinary. It is something we all know but something that many have failed to implement into their lives (and their childrens’).

In 7 years time only 25% of females will be within a healthy weight range and barely 17% of males will be deemed healthy.

According to current trends noted by the Victorian Government, by 2025 16.9 million people will be overweight or obese in Australia. Around one-third of 5-19-year-olds and a massive number of adults; 83% of males and 75% of females aged 20 years or older will be overweight or obese. If that isn’t alarming you, think of it this way; In 7 years time only 25% of females will be within a healthy weight range and barely 17% of males will be deemed healthy.

Overweight and Obesity are not issues that Australians should be skirting around or sweeping under the rug. The impact that it causes on health is alarming. Obesity is a very serious disease, something that many people fail to recognise, just like my mum. It is a major risk factor in many chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes type II, hypertension, stroke, atherosclerosis, some cancer, polycystic ovary syndrome, gall bladder disease, musculoskeletal problems, stress, sleep apnoea and the list goes on and on.

Many of these issues my mother has had to face these health issues throughout her life. Her doctors did not think to treat her with exercise (which is a problem for another time), but instead with more drugs. Drugs that increased her appetite, made her feel sluggish, mentally unprepared and did not help to reduce the real underlying problem – her weight.

Direct costs in 2005 were $21 billion and estimated indirect costs were $35.6 billion per year, resulting in a total annual cost of $56.6 billion

The burden of these diseases on the Australian Health Care system is alarming. A 2005 Australian Diabetes, Obesity and Lifestyle (AusDiab) study showed that there are both significant direct and indirect costs for Overweight and Obesity. Direct costs in 2005 were $21 billion and estimated indirect costs were $35.6 billion per year, resulting in a total annual cost of $56.6 billion (Colagiuri et al. 2010).

Overweight and obesity is crippling the Australian economy and is destroying families all over the country. If Australia is to avoid catastrophic consequences both social and economic the conclusion is unavoidable: We must begin to take action and spread the word to those we love; you have to take control of your health.

In an age of the internet and social media, there is a plethora of information out there (some good, some not so good) but we cannot continue to live under a rock and hope the problem will go away on its own. It needs to start with individuals and it needs to be taught and promoted to our children. This is something I am deeply passionate about and I have made it my mission to help bring good, evidence-based knowledge to not only those I love, but to as many people who will listen.

My Mum recently turned 44 and is currently in the best shape of her life at 62kg. She credits her weight loss to being inspired by me (but I’m pretty sure all mothers say that?), plenty of daily meditation and lots of walking.

No longer overweight, she often comes to me and asks for advice on what she should be eating to be more health conscious and shows interest in yoga and tai chi. Her health conditions still linger in the background, but she has less back pain and her mind is clearer. After being on prescription morphine for 18 years (her highest dose was 80mg per day!), she has been completely free from it now for the last 2.
She jokes about wearing my clothes and I’m actually scared she might try and squeeze into a leather skirt. It proves to me that we have come a long way, but more importantly, it shows me the difference it can make when you decide to take control and ownership of your health.

Though much shorter than me, I still look up to my Mum. My first role model.

 

 

Picture credit: Peter Menzel from the book “Hungry Planet: What the World Eats” 

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