Obesity not 'just a personal responsibility issue', experts say

Obesity has emerged as a political football in the final week of the election campaign, and whether or not it is a matter of personal responsibility.

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The National Party leader says taxing sugary foods isn't going to cure the problem. Source: Breakfast

By Eleisha Foon of

National Party leader Judith Collins has called obesity a weakness.

New Zealand has the third highest adult obesity rate in the OECD and it is increasing.

Now, experts have condemned Collins' comments and explained why it is a complex health issue.

"It is a very shallow and lazy way of thinking about obesity. Nobody in the whole obesity research area with anything to do with it thinks that this is just a personal responsibility issue," said the professor of global health and nutrition at Auckland University, Boyd Swinburn.

He said obesity was complex and needed to be approached with empathy, understanding and a deeper level of thinking.

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In fact, one in three adult New Zealanders and one in 10 children are classified as obese.

Prof Swinburn said it was not just a matter of personal responsibility.

"People are creatures of their environment, the food environment was increasingly full of ultra processed foods, highly palatable foods made up of cheap ingredients full of fat and sugar and salt, and they're readily available, they're heavily marketed ... and so that's what people end up eating".

New Zealand's adult population is the third most overweight in the world, while children are the second highest, behind the US.

The world health organisation has called obesity an epidemic and it's a major concern for Dr Brian Betty, medical director for the College of GP's.

"Genetics does play a role. Weight is actually very difficult to control. Things like advertising to children from a very young age influences dietary behaviour and attitudes to food which can have a detrimental affect as they become older."

He said there was a bulging cost surrounding obesity including diabetes rates which account for "11 percent of the total health budget," cardiovascular diseases, cancers.

Obesity in children is also associated with musculoskeletal problems, asthma and psychological problems, including body dissatisfaction, poor self esteem, depression and other mental health problems.

All experts agree that something must be done urgently to address the epidemic - but there is no one solution.

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"Obesity does need to be one of the top lifts for health interventions in this country. We need more support at the frontline ... we need access to medication, we also need society to intervene with things like advertising for children, the approach we take in schools, education, a whole lot of different approaches to tackling the problem," Dr Betty said.

Health Coalition Aotearoa is a group of more than 50 health organisations which recently rated political parties on their health action plan.

They found only two parties, TOP and Greens, "actually come up to scratch" with targeted policies around healthy food and addressing obesity, Prof Swinburn said.

He called for government intervention to changing Aoteroa's food environment which has been contributing to the explosion of ultra processed food and drink.