Kiwi father of five gives rare unflinching insight into struggle with morbid obesity

Uaina Pupulu says he is addicted to food and, at his heaviest, he tipped the scales at 300kgs.

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At his heaviest, Uaina Pupulu tipped the scales at 300kgs. Source: Sunday

In a brave and rare insight, this father of five allowed TVNZ Sunday’s cameras to capture his struggle and his surgery, as he attempts to lose weight and live a normal life.

It’s been difficult for the 38-year-old, but he wants the nation to see his reality, and to bring obesity into the spotlight, as health experts become increasingly concerned about the disease in our communities, saying it’s misunderstood and ignored.

Sunday caught up with Pupulu 11 months after his surgery, which saw at least 80 per cent of his stomach removed through a gastric sleeve, which involves cutting his stomach sac to a narrow tube.

“It's a fairly brutal way of dealing with obesity which unfortunately is the best option we have for people like Uaina,” Dr Richard Babor, who operated on Pupulu, said.

Growing up Pupulu was a gifted athlete, but a family tragedy and his nana passing threw that equilibrium off.

"I just couldn't deal with it, I got major depression and the only way I could feel any joy was through consuming food and then I got hooked," he told Sunday.

So much so that Pupulu ate his way to 300kgs in weight.

"Not only was the food bad but portion control was just non-existent. I ate until I had food comas."

After the Counties Manukau DHB intervened, Pupulu lost a whopping 100kgs over the period of a year through having his food intake monitored.

He then made the difficult decision to have bariatric surgery to make sure he didn't relapse.

Pupulu has since lost several kilos following his weight loss operation, but his recovery has been interrupted by a knee operation.

However, despite the weight loss, Pupulu says bariatric surgery is “not a silver bullet”.

He has started seeing a psychologist, with the focus of returning home to his wife and kids.

Watch Pupulu's amazing weight loss journey in the video above

There are 40,500 morbidly obese in Counties Manukau DHB - more than double the number of any other DHB.

There are no psychological tests before patients come in for surgery, and surgeon Richard Babor says more funding for services such as psychologists will make a real difference.

“So it’s like an ambulance at the bottom of a cliff. It’s a very expensive ambulance, it does help people who have severe problems like Uaina, but it’s not an answer to obesity in society,” he said.

Professor Boyd Swinburn, one of the world’s leading obesity and food policy experts, said New Zealand is one of the third worst in the OECD for adults, and the second worst for children.

“Are we waiting to be number one before we do anything?” Swinburn asked.

Swinburn has dedicated his life to addressing the problem in our own backyard.

“We are getting fatter. Two-thirds overweight or obese and it's much higher for Māori and Pacific.”

While the crisis has been around for decades, the issue is largely ignored and misunderstood.

“People who do have obesity are considered by the general population to be weak and lazy. This is pure prejudice,” he said.

Swinburn wants a spotlight shone on the food industry, which he says has a “huge power”.

“If it's been marketed to us, then that's what we take on board.

“Kids are watching eight junk food ads an hour during the peak viewing time for children. And not only that, but what about what comes on to the phone? That is not regulated at all - that's huge.”

It’s also a magnet for junk food outlets, or what Swinburn calls “food swamps”.

“We know around poorer schools they are 33 per cent more likely to have junk food outlets and that is where they set up shop.”
There are currently no restrictions to stop junk food joints popping up.

“Many people say, well, ‘It's just up to every individual, you know, you're responsible for what goes in your mouth.’ I'm afraid that doesn't wash.

"The responsibility for taking action must start with the government as a whole of society’s action. But if we have no government leadership, we're getting nowhere.”

Swinburn says the focus has to be on prevention.

He made five recommendations for the next government, including the banning of junk food marketing to children; a sugar tax and no GST on fruit and vegetables; healthy school lunches nationwide; front of pack food labelling; and a national survey on children’s nutrition.

“If we can have those five in the next three years, that would be fantastic.”

There is a glimmer of hope, too, with the implementation of healthy free school lunches due to Covid-19.

“That was a food security issue, as opposed to an obesity issue now that could well have important ramifications to obesity, but it wasn't an obesity strategy.”

The scheme is not nationwide, however, and there are no plans to implement a sugar tax.