It’s time for New Zealand to start taking obesity seriously!

By Amanda Johnson 12/07/2010 1


Obesity is very much in the news again this week with our Government being widely criticised for its inaction.

Last year, Health Minister Tony Ryall dropped nutrition and physical activity from the Government’s health targets and the  National Administration Guideline (5) clause on healthy eating in schools was dropped by Education Minister Anne Tolley. Funding was also withdrawn last year from the Obesity Action Coalition.

Today, Dr Robyn Toomath from the Fight the Obesity Epidemic group commented in The Christchurch Press, that ’the Government had barely acknowledged obesity as an issue’.

There are many of us working in public health nutrition who would like to see nutrition and health firmly back on the political agenda. We need increased funding for both preventing and treating obesity if we are going to prevent health costs sky-rocketing in the future as a result of co-morbidities such as cancer,  heart disease and Type 2 diabetes (which increases risk of cardiovascular disease and kidney disease). It’s time to take firm action and the action needs to be now.

It was good to read about the great work Canterbury dietitian Lea Stening has been doing over the last year with her free clinic, inspiring one person to lose over 60kg in weight — but what a shame the funding for this has now been scrapped. We need much more funding for dietitians to help manage obesity, not less, so more of us can provide these free services to those people who really need them.

In a recent lecture in Auckland earlier this month, leading international obesity expert Professor Phillip James estimated that in the UK, on average, the reduction in energy expenditure (as a result of increased use of labour saving devices in the home, sedentary work activities and the use of cars) has reduced our energy requirements by around 750kcal per day. The situation is likely to be similar here. In fact, Professor James estimated that for some New Zealanders, such as Maori and Pacific People, the reduction in energy expenditure may have reduced our energy requirements by as much as 1000-1200kcal per day. This is a huge reduction, and needs to be matched by reducing food intake to stem the rising  tide of obesity in this country.

We need to be promoting an increased intake of healthy foods, and possibly one approach may be removing GST from fruits and vegetables to make these foods more affordable for all New Zealanders — particularly those on a low income. In fact, interestingly, Professor James in his recent lecture commented that he found vegetables and fruit here [in New Zealand] probably the most expensive he had seen in an affluent society. The Science Media Centre will be addressing the issue of whether we should scrap GST on healthy foods in a media briefing tomorrow (13 July) with presentations from Dr Cliona Ni Mhurchu (lead investigator for the SHOP study) and public health expert Bronwen King. The briefing comes a week before the introduction of a new Bill into Parliament calling for GST on healthy foods to be scrapped.

Perhaps we should also consider tackling junk food, as doctors in the UK are trying to do, by stopping fast-food outlets opening near schools, restricting the advertising of products high in fat, salt or sugar and limiting sponsorship of sports events by fast-food producers such as McDonald’s.


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