Who cares about New Zealand’s waistline?

By Amanda Johnson 19/10/2010

A conference held in Wellington yesterday (18 October 2010) by the Edgar National Centre for Diabetes Research, an Institute of the University of Otago, looked at this very question.

Bringing together a whole range of experts, including Government, health professionals, media and the food industry, the presenters looked at the evidence base for public health measures to reduce the risk of obesity and its co-morbidities.

It is great to see New Zealand looking at a multiple-strategy approach to tackling obesity. I really think if we are to succeed in addressing this problem, we do need to look at approaching it from lots of different angles and we all need to get involved.

Professor Jim Mann opened the conference by highlighting the increasing prevalence of obesity in New Zealand and listing the co-morbidities associated with it; including Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some cancers.

A range of experts then followed, but what to me was unique about this event was having input from the food industry, with the Managing Director of McDonalds, Mark Hawthorne, giving a presentation.

This is the first time I have seen a company such as McDonald’s front up at a conference of this nature — and this is a great step forwards. As Mark freely admitted, historically the food industry has tended to set themselves apart from the obesity debate, with the excuse that obesity has increased dramatically over the last thirty years or so, and the products they provide have not changed, therefore they have previously absolved themselves of any responsibility and have been disengaged.

However, times are changing, and it is good to now see companies like McDonald’s stepping up and starting to get involved in dialogue with public health professionals. I was actually quite astounded to hear that McDonald’s sell 1.3 million meals per week to New Zealanders — that’s a staggering amount of food and even small changes in product formulation will have a huge impact on the amount of total fat, saturated fatty acids, salt and sugar going into the New Zealand food chain.

Personally I would really like to see a much larger McDonald’s chip — which would reduce the fat content and therefore the energy density of the meal. Unfortunately, when challenged about this, Mark responded that global constraints mean this is unlikely to happen. What a shame! Imagine — if New Zealanders are consuming 1.3 million meals a day — how many meals must be consumed weekly world wide, and what impact would providing a lower energy density McDonalds’s meal have on the food chain of the whole world?

At least McDonalds NZ are making some subtle changes to their products – changing to a healthier cooking fat and reducing the sugar content of the bun. I think there is room for a lot more improvements yet in the McDonald’s menu, but this is one small step in the right direction.

The presentation by Hon Tariana Turia (co leader of the Maori party and Associate Minister of Health), who herself had bariatric surgery 11 months ago, was excellent! It is great to see her support of what is such an important issue for New Zealand. Let’s hope we now start to see some Government action and investment into policies to help tackle the obesity problem — and soon.

The conference attracted a bit of media interest! Jim Man summed up the situation nicely in an interview on Breakfast TV where he talked about the need for us all to work together — that means engaging not only with Government, multi-national food companies, workplaces and schools, but also with communities, families and individuals.

Only by making healthier options easier for everyone can we hope to slim down New Zealand’s waistline.

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