Australia’s obesity crisis has been labelled “the new smoking” by health experts and industry bodies are warning people to know the health risks associated with being overweight.
Current obesity rates in Australia show one in four is overweight and one in three obese, placing us only just behind Greece, New Zealand and the United States.
It has already been documented that the risks associated with obesity, including heart disease, Type 2 Diabetes and stroke, may lead to the current generation of Australian children being the first to not outlive their parents.
Previous generations grew up observing their parents and other adults smoking in the home, car and public places, and most also took up the habit in one of the most obvious examples of “monkey see, monkey do.”
Of course, the dire health impacts smoking had weren’t well known, or accepted, until the 1950’s, and it soon became illegal to directly advertise smoking or to portray it positively through the use of sport stars or celebrities.
Nowadays, we all know the impact smoking has on our health, and that of children.
In 2010, a law was passed in Australia that banned smoking in cars with children under the age of 17 inside.
Is this where junk food is headed? Ten years from now you won’t be able to eat a burger in the presence of children and anti-junk food ads will saturate the media?
The pattern is already there: we’re aware of how damaging fatty, salty, sugar loaded and processed food is for us, but it is still so readily, and cheaply, available that people can’t and won’t say no.
The suggestion of a “fat tax” on fatty foods similar to that implemented in Denmark was suggested, mirroring the increased tax placed on smoking to make it less appealing to take up the habit and providing more reason to quit.
You cannot advertise smoking, you cannot advertise junk food to children, there are graphic pictures and health warnings on cigarette packets, and soon a simple health guide will be developed by the Australian government to appear on the fronts of all packaged foods sold in Australia.
Subsidised counselling for the obese
Now the Australian Psychological Society wants counselling subsidised for overweight people seeking treatment.
It believes Medicare should fund the cost of registered psychologists to provide assistance to those with chronic diseases caused by obesity.
Each session would cost taxpayers more than $80.
Is it the taxpayers responsibility to fund such a campaign?
While it is individuals we’re talking about here, the fact is that it is a problem all of society will deal with at some stage.
Do we fund a program to educate people now, or do we pay for medical costs when their arteries give up and they need round-the-clock support?
The ageing epidemic is already going to completely overrun our medical system in the next decade, so is it a better idea to be proactive?
Corrina Langelaan from The Parents' Jury, an organisation set up to reduce childhood obesity and get better health education in Australia, told Food Magazine that pointing the finger only on parents is not the right way to fix the problem.
“Obesity is one of the biggest issues facing our society today,” she said.
“It’s easy to shift the blame solely to parents, but they are being constantly undermined by the actions of the food industry and lack of Government action to tackle the issue.
“Families need a positive and healthy environment to raise positive and healthy children.”
She believes introducing counseling could be a positive move towards an entire behavioral change, but but it would need to be supported by other measures.
“In regards to changing behaviour, counselling is an interesting idea.
“We believe there is a need to create a positive and healthy environment to help parents.”
“However, these environmental factors need to be combined with improved regulation.
“This includes banning junk food advertising during the times of day children are likely to be watching and traffic light labelling on packaged foods.
“Parents’ need Government and the food industry to work together to create an environment that helps families maintain a healthier lifestyle.”
Industry, government and society need to work together
Julie Anne Mitchell, NSW Health Director at the Heart Foundation agrees that the issue is a complex one and a solution will only be found through a combined effort.
“I think it’s complex, there’s no single reason for why we’re seeing the increase in obesity, it is largely lifestyle induced, we have too many machines to do for us what we used to do ourselves,” she told Food Magazine.
“Our environment is changing, we’re sitting in our workplace more and in our leisure time, it’s changed rapidly in the last 20 years and it’s changed how we behave everyday.”
While the negative health impacts unhealthy foods can have are as dire as those associated with smoking, Mitchell told Food Magazine it is much more complicated.
“While you can draw parallels between smoking and obesity, it is different,” she said.
“We didn’t realise how damaging smoking was, and it has no benefit to lifestyle.
“We have to eat food, so it’s not a black and white situation like it was with smoking.
“It took 25 to 30 years of implementing a whole range of anti smoking campaigns and restrictions to curb that.
“With food its much more complex, certainly our lifestyle has changed, there’s a greater reliance on convenience.
“We want to improve the food supply in the community, making sure everyone has access to proper, healthy food.
Mitchell says most people “know what they should be eating,” but often lifestyles get in the way.
She told Food Magazine it’s not a case of having to train for hours at the gym and not eat tasty food, but finding the ways people can improve their health every day.
Substituting full cream dairy products with low fat, margarine for butter and taking the stairs instead of the lifts are simple solutions people can make to improve their health.
“It’s about those moments everyday where you can make a choice between healthy and not-so-healthy,” she says.
Traffic light labelling
The Parents Jury has been one of the biggest advocates for the traffic light labelling system, and Langelaan told Food Magazine most people support the idea.
“In August 2011, a poll undertaken by The Parents’ Jury showed overwhelming support for the introduction of traffic light labelling on food with almost 90 per cent of respondents supporting its mandatory introduction,” she said.
“Over 91 per cent of respondents wanted to see traffic light labelling on all packaged food products and a massive 90 per cent want to see it extended to cover all items on the menu boards in fast food outlets.
She dismissed claims from the Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC) that the Daily Intake Guides (DIGs) are a better solution.
“Many parents simply don’t understand the current daily intake guide and have no idea the suggested servings on many packaged foods don’t reflect reality,” she said.
“Traffic light labelling is a good step to helping consumers purchase healthy foods. It is a simple and recognisable system necessary to help families make healthier choices.”
While Mitchell agrees some kind of simple, easy to understand health guide is needed for packaged foods in Australia, she stresses that it must provide accurate and relevant information every time.
“The Heart Foundation supports some type of interpretive system that is going to help mother or father in a supermarket chose a healthier option in a range.
“People need help, they do need a way to identify a healthier food product amongst other similar ones.
“Were not specifying the type of labelling, but something that allows them to compare like with like in a certain food group.
“It’s not about having the one system for everything, but for each food category or it could become a bit too simplistic.”
Slow and steady won't win this race
Mitchell praised the changes being made by some food manufacturers and governments, but says more needs to be done.
“It’s a responsibility that government, the food industry and the general public share equally,we all have a part to play.
“Certainly the role for the food industry is to look at the ways they produce food and look at ways to reduce saturated fat and salt in the processing of food.
“The role governments play is giving incentives for the public, as well as industry, to make healthier choices and the educate about healthy food options.
“It is a big problem, it will not go away quickly, we need to work together on this, we have seen great ways the food industry and government is making changes, on menus as of February 2012 restaurants will display kilojoule content of food items so that’s helping the consumer in choice they make.”
Another move by governments to reduce the nation’s ever-expanding waistline is the Jamie Oliver Ministry of Food campaign will begin rolling out across Queensland next week, aiming to re-educate people about how to prepare proper, nutritious foods.
Queensland Health minister Geoff Wilson said the program is a timely arrival.
"There is an urgent need to educate Queenslanders about preparing nutritious meals and help them to lead long, healthy lives," he said.
In August last year the Victorian government spend $40 million on a campaign inspired by the TV chef’s program.
It will provide sessions on healthy eating, exercise and food preparation for the many who find themselves overwhelmed and confused by conflicting health messages.
And for those who are finding themselves feeling pretty unhealthy following the holiday period, Mitchell warns crash diets are not the key.
“They are hugely popular this time of year,” she said.
“People ate too much, drank too much over the holidays and they want a quick fix.
“Fad diets are often quick fixes but not a long term solution.
“They often lose weight in the short term, but end up damaging their bodies in the long run and putting the weight back on.
“It’s more about finding the long term solution and sticking to it.”