Australians and New Zealanders have always loved being trendsetters. Whenever our geographically remote and numerically small nations achieve a world first or world best, we feel particularly proud.
So we have revelled in being the best at cricket or rugby, inventing the stump-jump plough, the Hills Hoist, the ute, the jet boat and the bungee jump; giving women the vote; creating the pavlova and the first feature-length movie, or being the first on Everest.
And now, our nations are world leaders on another front. In the battle of the heavyweights, we rank alongside the best, with suggestions that Australia is now the most overweight nation on the planet, with New Zealand not far behind. Recent statistics from the Australian Government's Institute for Health and Welfare show that six out of every 10 adults over 25 are overweight, and one in five are obese. What makes it more alarming is that the next generation is shaping up even worse: already before adulthood, one in five children is overweight or obese, a near doubling of the rate in just 10 years. New Zealand's Ministry of Health notes that in 2002/3, more than half of the nation's adults were overweight or obese. Again in New Zealand, the rates of obesity increase have changed dramatically. Between 1977 and 1989, only small increases in obesity rates were recorded but in the equivalent time to 2003, rates nearly doubled. The weight of the problem is not evenly spread: the New Zealand study shows higher incidences of obesity in Maori and Pacific Island groups, and in disadvantaged families over richer ones. While some experts think the overweight trend may be slowing, the obesity epidemic will see most antipodeans suffering from weight-related problems as a matter of course.
The consequences of this epidemic are far-reaching and sometimes surprising. The obvious ones revolve around health. Dramatic increases in Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, osteoarthritis, heart disease and stroke, gall bladder problems, sleep disorders, pregnancy complications and some cancers are associated with weight problems. It is believed that obesity may create the first generation of people who will have significantly shorter life expectancy than their parents, a reversal of a trend that improved lifestyle, health practices and sanitation have created over the past century. The estimated cost to Australia caused by overweight people was an astronomical $A25 billion in 2005, rising each year. Recent research has shown that even having obese friends increases one's own risk of obesity, probably through shared lifestyle and the lowering of the stigma of being overweight.
Meanwhile movie theatres, airlines and other public space providers are finding they have to make special accommodation for the wider and heavier client. Air France was reportedly sued by a portly customer who felt “humiliated” at being forced to buy tickets for two seats for his approximately 160 kilogram frame. In Britain, there are moves to introduce wider crematoriums to allow for new coffins up to a metre across.
The causes of the obesity epidemic are put down to the imbalance between energy intake and energy expenditure.
There has been an increase in calorie consumption, especially through processed foods rich in sugars and fats but low in fibre and nutrients, and a decrease in exercise, helped by a range of modern conveniences that provide motorised mobility, take the labour out of household tasks and supply hours of electronic entertainment, requiring no physical activity. While some people are genetically programmed to obesity, the majority of us have little natural excuse for excess weight.
To deal with the looming crisis, governments and health agencies are preparing action on a multitude of fronts.
Hospitals are appointing obesity and weight-loss specialists to cope with the booming demand for weight-related help. Schools are being encouraged to reduce the availability of unhealthy foods sold in canteens. TV advertising has been introduced to encourage parents to limit the time their children spend on electronic entertainment.
The explosion of weight-loss surgery procedures adds to the already-existing proliferation of diets, fat-burning pills, exercise programs and other commercially- promoted answers to the problem.
It is good to see action on some of the basic issues at the heart of the problem.
To have governments and school authorities voluntarily seek out ways to improve the diet and exercise patterns of children is a real plus. However, it is more than a little puzzling to understand other responses.
To the problem of eating too many calories, there is now an increasing focus on surgical procedures to reduce overweight problems. Somehow, this doesn't quite add up. While it is effective in reducing weight, it seems odd that people should spend too much on the food they eat (but to a degree don't need), then spend more, in part subsidised by governments and possibly by private health insurance, to solve the problem caused by excess in the first place.
Wouldn't it make more sense to deal with the issue at the point of intake?
Similarly with a good number of the various pills and diets offered. They can be quite expensive, and are yet another illogical way of dealing with the fact that we have already spent too much on food.
The obscenity of this is increased when we realise for up to half of the world's population, insufficient food is a constant problem. How morally irresponsible is it that we should spend more on precious medical resources (also scarce in the same places that have food shortages) to partially undo the damage our gluttony has done?
We need to recognise that the reckless misuse of resources is a failure to be responsible, not just for our own welfare but for the welfare of the rest of the world. With the increasing globalisation of the world, we must be more and more aware of how our actions affect people we will probably never meet. It is too simplistic to assume that if we eat less, some starving citizen of the planet will automatically get more but surely one tiny step we can take is to be more responsible with what we eat.
What an irony that half the world should be starving to death, while the other half is eating itself to death. Yet it is the ultimate marker of our modern lifestyles, which have emphasised convenience and immediacy over slower but more effective, healthy processes.
We would rather take a pill to cure our ills than change our lifestyles.
The challenge of the fat nations is not merely one of health. It is one of world view: of understanding that our actions and lifestyles have implications beyond ourselves, our families or our nations. It is a problem with spiritual overtones as well. Gluttony is one of the traditional “Seven Deadly Sins,” and while the Catholic Church has recently released an updated list of the modern sins, one of the ancient ones is increasingly making its influence felt. As Christians, we are called to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. Gluttony reveals love for neither neighbour nor self. In a world running short of resources, we are called to reconsider our use of precious food.